These 18th-century mirror paintings — offered on 20 March in New York — were created by Chinese artisans using flat sheets of mirrored glass imported from Europe. As such, says specialist Victoria Tudor, they reflect a unique period of cultural exchange
‘This extremely fine pair of Chinese export reverse mirror paintings offers us a snapshot of Canton [now known as Guangzhou] in the 18th century during a pivotal moment in trade between China and the West,’ says Victoria Tudor, decorative arts specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘It also reflects a highly romanticised vision of what the East wished to portray to the West.’
In the 1750s European trade with China was restricted to Canton, allowing the Chinese state under the Qianlong Emperor to collect taxes on goods traded and to monitor interactions with the West more easily. ‘Canton became the only hub of commerce on mainland China, where an exchange of goods as well as ideas occurred,’ Tudor explains. ‘This style of export mirror painting emerged and ultimately flourished in a unique environment of cultural exchange.’
The painstaking process of making mirror paintings was undertaken by Chinese artisans who were already experts in painting and calligraphy. ‘Of course, artists in China had been painting for centuries, but the notion of painting on the reverse of a glass was inspired by Europeans,’ the specialist explains. ‘The production of flat sheets of glass had yet to be accomplished in China, so large mirror plates were imported for local artisans, who combined traditional Chinese ink painting with learned Western techniques to create new, highly desirable works of art.’
To create the reverse glass paintings, artisans traced the outlines of their designs on the back of the plate and, using a special steel implement, scraped away the mirror backing to reveal glass that could then be painted. Several layers of paint were applied to one side of the glass, in the reverse order of those laid down on an easel or panel painting, while the painting would be viewed from the other side.
The reverse mirror paintings were made almost entirely for export, and the works reflect the impact that China had on the imagination of the West.
In the painting above, a pastoral scene features two Chinese ladies of rank sitting by the Pearl River which flows through Canton.
‘The painting purports to capture for the Western viewer what life was like in China, but it’s clearly very idealised — actually quite amusing,’ says Tudor, pointing out the women’s impractical ensembles of sumptuous silk robes and intricate headdresses on the industrial waterfront. ‘The exuberant and bright colours, along with the fineness in detail, made these artworks extremely popular in the West.’
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After surviving the long journey from Canton to England, these mirror paintings would have had custom gilt-wood frames made for them — although the elaborate, Chippendale-style frames on these examples are actually later in date. They would have been reserved for special places in the home, and probably surrounded by other export objects such as blue-and-white porcelain from the Jingdezhen kilns, perhaps in a drawing room or a dressing room.
On 20 March this pair of paintings, offering what Tudor describes as ‘a glimpse into history’, will be offered in Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.