This tapestry forms part of the exotic and highly elaborate Histoire de l'Empereur de la Chine set illustrating everyday life of the Chinese Emperor, believed to be Shun Chih (reigned 1644 - 1661) and Kang Hsi (reigned from 1661 - 1721) and their respective Empresses. Many of the images are based on Johan Nieuhof's Legatio batavica ad magnum Tartatiae chamum sungteium, modernum sinae imperatorem of 1665, which derived from the visit of a delegation of the Dutch East India Company to China from 1655 - 1657. For the botanical details, Athanasius Kircher's China Monumentis qua Sacris qua Profanis of 1667 seems to have served as inspiration. As its title 'Roi de Chine' implies, the series was meant to illustrate the Chinese Royal Court, but many influences from other Far Eastern countries are discernable. The artists were keen to incorporate as many 'documented' exotic objects as possible in these tapestries.
The series traditionally included The Emperor on a Journey, The Emperor Sailing, The Empress Sailing, Gathering Pineapples, The Astronomers, The Return from the Hunt, The Empress' Tea, The Collation, The Gathering of Tea (as yet unidentified) and The Audience of the Emperor.
THE DESIGNERS AND FIRST WEAVING
The first set of L'Histoire de l'Empereur de la Chine, consisting of nine or ten subjects, was woven when Philippe Behagle (d. 1705) was the directeur of the Royal Beauvais Tapestry Manufactory. In a memorandum of tapestries made during his directorship, Behagle mentions this series: 'Chinoise faict par quatre illustre peintre'. Noël-Antoine Mérou (director 1722 - 1734) further reveals in a document of 1731: 'Une Tenture du dessin des chinois, par les sieurs Batiste, Fontenay et Vernensal, en six pièces…'. The painters referred to are Guy Vernansal (d. 1729), the flower-painter Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay (d. 1715) and Baptiste (the name used by contemporaries for the flower-painter Jean-Baptiste Monn3333 (d. 16993) and an unidentified fourth painter. Vernansal's signature on various models implie3 that he was the main designer of the series while the exact dating of the first woven set is difficult to determine with certainty. It is probable that the first woven set was executed after Behagle took over the directorship in 1684 but before Monnoyer left for England in 1690. A further undated memorandum by Behagle states that the first set, woven with gold-thread (rarely used by Beauvais) was 'vendu par M. d'Isrode à Monseigneur le duc du Maine (Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, d. 1736)' for 20,000 livres. M. d'Isrode, who later had two further sets made, acted as an intermediary, while the set was actually manufactured for Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, duc du Maine (1670 - 1736). The popular series was finally abandoned at Beauvais in 1732, when the cartoons were so worn that they could no longer serve their purpose.
The great success of the series was undoubtedly due to the increased interest in China at the end of the 17th Century, which was already manifested with the importation of enormous quantities of goods from the Far East to France by the Compagnie des Indes Orientales. The enthusiasm was further heightened when the Mercure Galant published a long description of the travels of father Couplet to China in 1684. The young duc du Maine, the legitimised son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, met the Jesuit Couplet (d. 1693) and his Chinese convert, Michael Alphonusus Shen Fu-Tsung (d. 1691), when they first returned from China and was deeply interested in his adventures. A second event that possibly arose even more interest was Louis XIV's glamorous reception at Versailles on 1 September 1686 for the ambassadors of Siam who had been sent by the King of Siam Phra Narai (d. 1688). Among the reception participants was again the duc du Maine, illustrated in an etching in the Almanach Royal of 1687 recording the presenting of the gifts to Louis XIV. The ambassadors of Siam are even recorded visiting the site of the Beauvais tapestry workshop in October of 1686. The fact that the duc du Maine met with the Jesuit Joachim Bouvet (d. 1730), who was being sent by Louis XIV to Siam, prior to the latter's departure to give him a scientific instrument that had been made for him. In this sinophile environment, the Beauvais workshop found a ready audience for its new tapestry series.
A set of six tapestries (originally ten) from this series executed for Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, comte de Toulouse and duc de Penthièvre (d. 1737), woven between 1697 and 1705, is in The J. Paul Getty Museum (Bremer-David, French Tapestries & Textiles, Los Angeles, 1997, cat. 9, pp. 80 - 97, although The Emperor Sailing from that series is lost). A tapestry depicting The Emperor Sailing from the Akram Ojjeh Collection and originally supplied to François-Louis (d.1732), Count Palatine and Prince Elector, in circa 1710, was sold at Christie's, Monaco, 12 December 1999, lot 21 and subsequently at Sotheby's, New York, 24 - 25 October 2002, lot 780, while another previously sold tapestry from the collection of the Earl of Cadogan, was sold at Christie's, New York, 21 October 2004, lot 1012. All of these tapestries vary in size, confirming that they were adapted in the weaving process to fit specific spaces, depending on the commission.