Ancestor Portrait of a Woman

Rice paper
19th century
D. 155 cm x 94 cm

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Ancestor portraits are sacred representations in China because they are essential to the cult of ancestors, which is as important as the cult of deities. The medium used is rice paper which is then put on silk rolls in order to roll or unroll them during festivals or ceremonies such as the Chinese New Year. These portraits were gradually replaced by photography at the end of the 19th century.

Painted most often when the person had just died, according to the advice and descriptions of family members, the so-called “ancestor portraits” were commissioned by the direct descendants, and most often by the eldest son.

The importance of the family is shown in the richness of the dresses, hats or accessories. In addition, the coat of arms on the dress indicates the rank of the Chinese dignitary and his family: imperial, civil or military. Here, the woman represented is wearing a white bird on her green costume, probably a crane, so she was certainly the wife of a high ranked official.

The Chinese believe that honouring the spirit of their ancestors will bring them wealth, happiness, health and also sons. This ancestor cult is based on the assumption that the presentation of portraits allows communication with the ancestor’s spirit. The portraits, which were rolled up during the rest of the year, were exhibited during festivals, particularly during the Chinese New Year.

Condition report:

The piece is in good condition, some old cracks are visible on the clothing.