The Canton artist known to the Western community as Spoilum was probably the earliest as well as the most talented China Trade portraitist. Active circa 1765 to 1805, Spoilum successfully adopted English painting style and the sophisticated technique of Castiglione (Lang Shining) to accomodate foreign demand for fine painting, establishing a highly influential China Trade portraiture convention. Prosperous European and, later, American traders were eager to commission portraits of the better-known hong merchants from Spoilum and his followers.
Appointed by the Imperial government, the twelve Chinese hong merchants who ran the Canton trade could become enormously wealthy. Houqua, for example, is known to have entertained Western visitors lavishly in his large villa, replete with elaborate silver and extensive manicured gardens. But the Co-hong were also responsible for the behavior of foreigners at Canton, so when a quayside brawl broke out in 1807 not only was the offending sailor fined but Mowqua, the hong merchant responsible for his ship, incurred a fine, his even larger.
The merchant here wears the blue-finialed Mandarin hat and goose badge of a fourth rank civil official, and delicately fingers his beaded necklace. Although unnamed, his likeness has been seen in several closely related versions, including a painting published in 1990 in Chinnery & the China Coast from the collection of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and another, from the collection of Elinor and Horace Gordon, sold Sotheby's, New York, 23 January 2010, lot 61. Some writers have called the sitter's half-smile and the infusion of light over his left shoulder typical Spoilum characteristics.