Portrait of an Elderly Couple

Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, 19th-early 20th century
Ink and color on cotton canvas
H x W (image): 158.1 x 119.8 cm (62 1/4 x 47 3/16 in)
Credit Line
Purchase — Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

attendant, China, incense, portrait, Pritzlaff collection, Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), WWII-era provenance
Provenance information is currently unavailable

The figures' pose, along with the incense burning in its container on the table behind the husband and wife, indicate that this portrait was intended for ancestral rites. While most ancestor portraits were painted on silk or paper, the coarse cotton canvas of this portrait is a material that was only used in a few areas of China, notably Shanxi Province in north China.

The heads of the elderly man and wife actually have been pasted onto the canvas, suggesting that their costumed bodies might have been painted ahead of time and the scroll was in a workshop waiting for a family's commission. "Pasted head" portraits were generally less expensive than other types of likenesses. One advantage for artists was that if they made a mistake when painting the face, they could simply remove it and start again without having to throw away the entire painting.

The attendants standing behind the elderly couple and the old-fashioned, wide-sleeved robes are both typical features of ancestor portraits during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Conservative elements often were retained in nineteenth- to early twentieth-century works from Shanxi Province.

Published References
  • Jan Stuart. Calling Back the Ancestor's Shadow: Chinese Ritual and Commemorative Portraits. vol. XLIII no. 3. p. 16, fig. 15.
  • Jan Stuart, Evelyn S. Rawski. Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits. Exh. cat. Washington and Stanford. p. 105, fig. 4.10.
  • China: 3,000 Years of Art and Literature. New York. p. 235.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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