OLD CHINESE PAINTINGS STILL AROUND AND AFFORDABLE
By Anne Gilbert
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, November, 2003
were old paintings. Especially popular were the ancestral
portraits. Lesser known these days, but showing up at auctions
more often, were the so-called “rice paper” paintings.
Throughout the last part of the 19th century, they were exported
in huge quantities and sold in America. In the 1950s brushwork
paintings, old and new, as well as copies, were fashionable
decorator items. One of the most common subjects were the black
and white horses, copied from early art. Another form of art
combined calligraphy with small paintings to tell a story. It is
still popular with interior designers. There are also pages
taken from calligraphy books and framed. Other examples
are strictly religious and combined dieties with Chinese
Surprisingly one of the most affordable art categories is
Chinese paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Even in
antique shops prices can range from a few hundred dollars to
under $3,000. They have never lost their appeal to American
collectors since they were first introduced to our shores by
China traders in the early 18th century.
The subjects were as varied as the materials used.
By the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, as more
Americans traveled to China, they brought back what they
Portrait of the six Prince Yi (1816-1861) c.1905. Hanging
Scroll, ink and color on silk.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sackler Gallery, purchase Smithsonian Collections
During the Boxer Rebellion (1900), when homes were looted, these
religious books, (Siutras) were brought back to America by
servicemen. Elaborate examples with gold ink
illustrations of dieties can sell for thousands of dollars.
CLUES: Paintings from the early Chinese dynasties are in museums
and private collections. However, there are still plenty of
ancestor portraits still around. These were
often done by commercial artists, using photos of the deceased,
in the late 19th and early
20th centuries. Before photography, the artists keep a supply of
facial features on hand.
The client would work out a composite and the artist would dress
the “ancestor” in a Mandarin costume. However, as they became
popular in America, artists created their own versions for
export. Prints also flood the market, with details accented with
hand painting. The largest can sell for $3,000 or more in a
gallery. They weren’t signed.
“Rice paper” paintings were
originally made into albums, with four or more paintings on a
page. The albums were in different sizes; 7”x 5” to 8” x 12”.
They used water colors and gouache on pitch paper, made from the
papyrus plant. Since it was quite fragile, examples may not be
in good condition. However, the paintings have retained their
vibrant colors. The earliest examples depicted member of the
Imperial Court, using much gold, silver and pearl dust in their
costumes. By the late 19th century subjects included festivals,
landscapes, birds, animals and flowers. The albums were painted
in a series and often named. A complete album can sell at
auction for $600 or more. Originally they sold for a
few dollars to tourists.
Rice paper paintings aren’t signed. However, some have the shop
labels or signatures
of well-known Chinese painters. They were, after all, studio
productions with several
artists working each painting. The album covers themselves were
works of art, covered in
brocade. Gold pheasants, flowers and fruit were depicted. The
pictures were often framed
in colored ribbons. Other times the pictures were sold
Another category is religious paintings in scroll or banner
form. Generally they were
done on paper or brocade. At auction they can sell for as little
Things to consider are age, condition and subject appeal. Are
the paintings really prints? Are they painted on quality paper
or textiles? If you are serious get help from experts. Carefully
examine any you see at the next antique show.
If you have any questions, you can Email us at
The Antique Shoppe
"Florida's Best Newspaper for Antiques
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