By Stephen F. Beiner

An oil portrait of my mother, who died when I was age 15, hangs in a place of honor in my living-room. I wear my motherís gold signet ring as a way of keeping her close to me at all times. My dadís photograph sits on the desk in my home office opposite my computer, so I can clearly see his kind face as I write this article. Several times each year, on the anniversary of their deaths and on certain religious holidays, I light a candle to honor their memory, to remember the profound influence that each of them had on my life and to continue to be inspired by the recollection of their goodness. Perhaps that is why I first became fascinated by the use of ancestor portraits by the Chinese to worship their deceased family members.

The Chinese have long had a profound connection to their ancestors. They believe, and continue to believe, that death does not sever a personís relationship with the living and that, if properly worshipped and honored in private family rituals, the spirits of their ancestors can bring them health, long life, prosperity and children, who will someday similarly honor their parents. In Imperial China, filial sons of all classes, as part of their sacred family duty to care for the spirits of their deceased ancestors, paid homage to their ancestors in ritual ceremonies in which they placed food offerings before the portrait scrolls of their forebears. Chinese commemorative portraits, commonly referred to as "ancestor paintings," were painted specifically for use in ancestor worship; the power of the living person was believed to reside in their portrait after death. Most of the ancestor portraits that have survived depict members of the Qing (pronounced ďChíingĒ) imperial families and military and civil elite who ruled China from 1644 until the revolution of 1911.

The ancestors were almost always depicted nearly live-size in a frontal pose, usually seated in an elaborately carved chair draped in brocade or fur, with a lavish carpet at their feet. All of the ancestors wore semiformal winter gowns or fur-trimmed robes with elaborate insignia that proclaimed their rank or princely status. The only differences are gender-related: the womenís feet, considered the most erotic part of her body, were always hidden; most womenís hands were also hidden as well. Both men and women are often shown wearing long jade bead necklaces and elaborate headdresses with gold and pearl ornaments.

While the highly styled costumes are encoded with symbols of the wearerís court status and social position, the most important part of the portrait is the face, which individualizes and identifies the ancestor and lifts him to the realm of icon. All ancestors were painted with virtually the same expression- a symbolically somber and detached look- to suggest otherworldly status. Yet great care is taken in the portraits to record the deceasedís face realistically; capturing the likeness was crucial for the portrait to be able to function as a ritual object. It was said that if even one hair in the depiction was "wrong," all future prayers would go to someone elseís ancestor, somewhat like a mis-directed email, resulting in family tragedy.

Besides being compelling art, the paintings reveal much about Chinese social and cultural history. Not unlike the objects bespeaking success in our status-conscious society laden with Rolex watches and trendy cars, the codification of status symbols among the inhabitants of Beijing during the Qing dynasty is clearly evident from the ancestor paintings. Rank determined all aspects of life, even the colors one was permitted to wear: bright yellow was reserved for the emperor, golden yellow for the heir apparent, and tawny yellow for the princes and consorts. Many officials wore embroidered badges featuring animals that signified their rank, from the lion down to the seahorse. This "code" is used by scholars, much like a scorecard, to identify the subjects of these portrait scrolls.

Because most of the ancestor portraits were painted posthumously, accurately depicting the facial features of the deceased posed a daunting problem for the artist. In the case of royalty, portraits made during the ancestorís life could be used as a model. On occasion, the artist was permitted a quick look at the corpse, or was able to use the visage of a family member who closely resembled the deceased. The artists also showed relatives books of drawings depicting various shapes of eyes and other facial features, much like a contemporary police artist does when attempting to create a composite picture from crime witness descriptions.

With the development of photography in the 19th century, the painting of ancestor portraits began to wane. People were photographed rather than painted, and still today such photographic portraits continue to hold a central place in the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship.

Despite their compelling presence and often exquisite quality, Chinese ancestor portraits, which came into vogue in the late-Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, until quite recently, languished in relatively obscurity, hidden from view from non-family members and largely ignored by connoisseurs of Chinese art. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, ancestor paintings were rarely available for purchase. Historically they were never sold and were rarely exhibited publicly. Possessing portraits of someone elseís ancestors was considered anathema, akin to stealing another familyís identity.

Since the exhibition in the summer of 2001 of the exceptionally large and rich collection of Chinese portraits acquired by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Washington, D.C.), which together with the Freer Gallery of Art constitutes the national museum of Asian Art for the United States, there has been mounting interest in this genre among museums, art collectors, and the general public. The Sacklerís Chinese portraits were acquired from the private collection of Richard Pritzlaff (1902-1997), a colorful New Mexico rancher, who stood nearly alone in his far-reaching vision and passion for collecting Chinese ancestor scrolls in the 1930ís and 1940ís. He built his collection when tumultuous conditions in China led descendants of princely households to sell their treasured family possessions. In 1991 Pritzlaff offered the portraits to the Sackler Gallery, donating half of the appraised value of each painting; the Smithsonianís Collections Acquisition Program supplied the other half of the funds.

Many Western museums have or are acquiring collections of ancestor portraits, but none equal the depth and quality of the Sackler collection. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Art museum of Princeton University each possess more than thirty portraits; the National Gallery in Prague possesses more than forty ancestor paintings. The Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario owns several ancestor paintings which they acquired in the 1920ís from the fur trader George Crofts, who noted even at that time that it had become increasingly difficult for him to acquire additional portraits because of the increased interest and demand for them by "foreign buyers." Another sign of the shifting perception about whether ancestor portraits are ritual objects or works of art is evidenced by the growing number of Chinese collectors around the world who are building private collections of memorial portraits.

Portraiture exerts a strong pull on the human imagination. The likenesses of people from distant lands and past times arouse great curiosity and beckon to the beholder. The need to scrutinize faces is an instinctive survival skill that has led to a deep human fascination with faces. Encountering a compelling human visage is almost like meeting the human being portrayed. Despite portraitureís hold on our imagination, the discipline of Chinese art history has only recently begun to move beyond its traditional focus on landscape painting to acknowledge the significance of Chinese portraits. And, until recently, Chinese portraits were judged by Western standards developed for European works of art created after the fifteen century, when European artists began to transform the portrait from a record of appearance into a character study. Portraiture was valued only if it succeeded in creating a picture of the mind and the soul, recording the subjectí unique thoughts, emotions and character. The aesthetic demanded by ancestor portraits- the aloof, iconic, otherworldly appearance- is the exact opposite of what Western eyes have learned to admire in portraiture: a living, breathing, feeling person with emotions that are apparent in the painting.

The socio-religious significance and importance of Chinese ancestor portraits, created for ritual veneration, is now beginning to be fully understood. Their unique artistic style and extraordinary beauty will continue to make them exceptionally desirable for museums as well as private collectors.

STEPHEN F. BEINER practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton. Together with his wife, Dr. Judith Beiner, he owns the GRIFFIN GALLERY OF ANCIENT ART, Gallery Center, Boca Raton, Florida.


Portrait of Prince Hongming (1705-1767), Qing dynasty; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, acquired from and partial gift of Richard Pritzlaff in 1991. Hongming wears a semi-formal court dress appropriate for winter. His surcoat is adorned with a round dragon badge that announces his rank as prince.

Portrait of Oboi , who died in 1669; Qing dynasty; painted mid-18th century to early 20th century; hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Sackler Gallery acquired from Pritzlaff. Once a powerful official, Oboi was purged from the court and died in prison in 1669. His descendants probably would not have commissioned this painting of him until after 1713 when he was posthumously rehabilitated. Judging from the almost photorealistic face, the painting seems likely to have been executed closer to 1900. If so, there is no record why his descendants commissioned a portrait of Oboi so many years after his death. Oboi wears a formal chaofu court robe and the thumb ring on his right hand indicates that he was an archer. The carpet pattern is based on a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) prototype and is painted in a traditional method parallel to the picture plane.

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