Visualizing a Culture for Strangers: Chinese Export Paintings from the Nineteenth Century

May 29, 2016 - September 6, 2016

Organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Chinese export watercolours were produced in the port cities of China, which were open to foreigners in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and were offered for sale to western customers. The cheaply produced watercolours were imported to Britain, America and other countries in quantities, and had considerable influence on the western vision of China. Because of their convenient size and relatively low price, most of these watercolours were avidly purchased by foreign merchants trading in China. Many of the watercolours were done in sets and put in albums or folios.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has a rich collection of these paintings, including figure drawings showing the different classes of people; scenes supposedly illustrating Chinese crafts such as silk making; daily live scenes; paintings of fish, insects, birds and flowers; topographical views of the Chinese ports, and views of Chinese shipping. The AGGV collection stands at just over one hundred and fifty items.

The exhibition and catalogue will focus on the techniques which they employed and in particular on the use of pith paper and the use of imported English paper. Painted by Chinese artists, yet reflecting the prejudices and preconceptions of western customers, these once-neglected paintings are an abiding testimony to the complexity of the forces shaping our view of ‘the East’.

Chinese export watercolour painting is a special genre which flourished in the city of Guangzhou (Canton) from the late 18th to the late 19th century when the city, where foreign factories sprang up, was the meeting place of foreigners. Later, Chinese artists, working primarily for studios in Hong Kong and Shanghai, would also produce paintings for the export market. These works were created and exported in large quantities by Chinese artists in western media and western techniques to meet the demand for a taste of China, its life, its customs and its landscape and architecture in the West. To cater to the interest of the western market, Chinese export painters took reference from western artworks such as oil paintings, prints, watercolours and sketches. There was a number of travelling expatriates artists in China during this period who taught in studios. The exhibition will exhibit a good cross section of Chinese export paintings and also attempt to show some of the influential role of western art traditions on Chinese exports paintings.

Scotiabank is proud to be Presenting Sponsor of the Varley Art Gallery's 2016 Summer Exhibitions.

Image: Opening reception, Visualizing a Culture For Strangers, Varley Art Gallery of Markham, 2016. Photo: Louis Li

Visualizing a Culture For Strangers: Chinese Export Paintings from the Nineteenth Century
Visualizing a Culture For Strangers: Chinese Export Paintings from the Nineteenth Century