From Leiden University in the Netherlands:
Chinese export paintings undervalued
16 November 2016
Chinese export paintings have a much greater cultural-historical and artistic value than was previously thought in the Netherlands, according to external PhD candidate Rosalien van der Poel. She advocates making these works accessible to the general public. PhD defence 30 November.
Not amateuristic artworks
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Chinese artists produced so-called export paintings: works that were specifically intended for Dutch clients. These clients were mainly traders, Jesuits, captains and officers visiting China, who wanted souvenirs to take home with them. These paintings showed people at home what life in the Far East was like. The paintings predominantly featured harbours (often with the client’s ship in the foreground), traditional dress, flora and fauna, and landscapes. These were not amateuristic artworks; they were expensive and some of the harbour scenes were up to two metres across.
Never previously exhibited
Many export paintings were passed on within Dutch families from generation to generation or found their way into private collections, finally ending up in museum depots. In the Netherlands there are around 4,000 such paintings in storage, most of which have never been exhibited. The reason is that to date the paintings were not thought to have any great artistic or cultural-historical value. Which is quite wrong, Van der Poel concludes, having made an inventory and a detailed examination of the works, and having spoken with family members of some of the original owners of these export paintings.
Unusual perspectives and bright colours
Van der Poel points out the cultural-historical value of these works. ‘Many of the paintings represent a specific time and place, about which the images give a wealth of information. The paintings also say something about Chinese and Western art conventions of the time. They had some distinctive traits, such as unusual perspectives, that buyers admired. In the course of the nineteenth century the colours – particularly of flora and fauna – became ever brighter and more unnatural. And, make no mistake, the works were not only produced by minor local artists, but also in the workshops of Chinese master painters.’ Van der Poel also concluded that the paintings are part of the Dutch heritage. ‘Many works have been handed on within families from generation to generation; there are some highly interesting stories behind them that come to light when a cultural biography of the works is being written. These stor[i]es need to be preserved.’
Plea from the heart
Van der Poel regards her dissertation as a plea from the heart to museums: put these works on display so that the public can view them! This could be by actually exhibiting them in museums and galleries, or it could equally mean making them accessible online. She is more than willing to act as torch bearer for export artworks in the Netherlands. ‘I could carry on with this subject until my dying day. A lot more research could be done on the original owners of the paintings: who were they, what role did the paintings play in their lives, and how were the paintings valued over the course of their lives?’ Van der Poel also hopes, depending on available subsidies, to start a restoration project shortly and to organise an exhibition of several paintings. Developing a user-friendly digital image bank is also high on her wish list.
Rosalien van der Poel studied art history in Leiden between 2001 and 2008. She carried out her PhD research in parallel with her regular job as Head of Cabinet at Leiden University. She is also coordinator of the Leiden Asia Year that will be taking place throughout 2017.