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Bonhams Hong Kong to Auction Imperial Portrait of Consort Chunhui

Bonhams Hong Kong are to auction an Imperial Portrait of Consort Chunhui as part of the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale to be held on 27 May at the Island Ballroom of the Island Shangri-La Hotel.

Attributed to the Italian missionary-artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who served at the Qing Court under the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, the half-length portrait of Consort Chunhui in court dress is executed in oil on gaoli paper and measures 54.5cm by 41.5cm.

Vividly painted in brilliant colors depicting the sitter in front profile from the waist up, her serene expression delicately rendered with full naturalistic attention, her face bright as if from natural sunlight, revealing a young yet dignified woman opulently adorned with feather hat, pearl earrings and a sumptuous orange-ground embroidered dragon robe, all against a mottled pale gray ground.

Consort Chunhui, whose birth date was unknown, was the daughter of Su Zhaonan, under the family name Su Jiashi of Manchu descent. She entered the Forbidden Palace during the Yongzheng Emperor’s reign and became a concubine of the then Prince Hong Li, giving birth to his third son. When the prince ascended the throne as the Qianlong Emperor, she was granted the title of Imperial Concubine Chun. She was raised by rank to consort in the second year of Qianlong’s reign (1737), also bearing a prince and a princess, then to noble consort in the tenth year (1745). In the twenty-fifth year of his reign (1760), she was conferred the title of Imperial Noble Consort Chun, making her second only to the Empress in the Imperial harem. After her death later that year, she was posthumously honored as Imperial Noble Consort Chunhui, and interred in the Yuling Mausoleum for concubines of the Qing emperors.

The attributed artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) (Chinese name Lang Shining) was the longest serving of the missionary-artists at the Qing Court, with a career spanning 51 years, during which he worked for the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. Born in Milan, he entered the Society of Jesus in Genoa in 1707 at the age of 19. As a novice, he had time to develop his interest in painting, so that by the time he received his orders from the Society to spread the faith in China in 1714, he was already proficient. Arriving in Macau in 1715, he quickly assimilated and learned Chinese language and customs, before being transferred to Beijing. Recommended by a fellow missionary Matteo Ripa (1682-1746) he was summoned for an audience with the Kangxi emperor. This audience inaugurated a new age in the history of Chinese court painting. Castiglione served as a senior court artist, playing a crucial role in introducing Western style trends on painting and fusing them with traditional Chinese techniques, formats and subject matters.

From its home in Beijing, the Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui later surfaced in France and clear documentation showed how it made its way there. Art historian Liang Lian, an expatriate residing in France, has conducted extensive studies on this subject. According to her research, the ‘Imperial Portrait of Consort Chunhui’ was an acquisition from Commander Henry Nicolas Frey. As the French commander of the Eight-Nation Alliance, he was involved in waging aggressive war against China. The French headquarters were located at the ‘Hall of Imperial Longevity’ (Shouhuang Dian) in Jingshan Park within the Imperial Palace compound, and this hall was the place where portraits and relics of deceased emperors, empresses and consorts were stored. Like other invaders, Commander Frey and his troops did not let any looting opportunity slip—they pillaged a large number of Imperial treasures from the Hall of Imperial Longevity. To investigate this matter, Liang Lian went to the Guimet Museum and saw a large bag of files related to artifact donations by Frey and his family, which included letter correspondences with the director of Louver Museum, director of Guimet Museum and the director of the Department of National Museums, Ministry of Culture, France as well as valuable original records such as the decree signed by the president of France on behalf of the State in receipt of the donations. One of the decrees stated, ‘…Order 1. The Minister of Culture has the right to represent the Guimet Museum, in the name of the country, to accept the following: A. donations by Commander Frey residing in Paris: …2. oil portraits depicting a Chinese prince (later confirmed to be the Qianlong Emperor), a Chinese princess (later confirmed to be the Qianlong Emperor’s consort)…’ Another letter by Commander Frey to the director of Guimet Museum dated 12 March 1914 wrote, ‘The Guimet Museum accepted the following artifacts I donated…3. Another portrait of a consort executed on cardboard or linen which appears worn due to age; 4. Portrait of an emperor on linen which has always appeared old and torn.’ These materials all indicate that General Frey, French Commander of the Eight-Nation Alliance looted these paintings and artifacts from China in 1900.

The painting was later sold by the family in a minor French auction.

The Imperial portrait of Consort Chunhui will go to block at the Bonhams Hong Kong 2012 Spring Auctions on 27 May. Estimate upon request.

Julian King, Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in Hong Kong, said:
“It is a great privilege for Bonhams to be offering a painting of such beauty and historical significance. Chunhui was a favored consort of the Qianlong Emperor, who presided over Imperial China at the zenith of its power, at a time when a free interchange of science and art with the West had resulted in extraordinary artistic developments. All the other portraits of this type from the Qianlong era are preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing and the Guimet Museum, making this a truly unprecedented opportunity for collectors”.

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