Palace hanging with embroidered dragon and lotus pattern

Yellow silk panel consisting of two widths of cloth with a vertical seam on the left side (textile is presumably a fragment of a larger panel that originally consisted of three widths of cloth). Textile is embroidered with a pattern of five, five-clawed, gold-thread dragons (central one faces forward, four profile dragons arranged two to each side). A stylized lotus meander embroidered in polychrome silk threads (mostly white, blue, green, brown, and red threads) fills the rest of the main field. An especially elaborate, fully opened blossom in pink, red, and white appears over the central dragon’s head. The center “seed pod” of each lotus flower is shaped like a doube “ruyi.” The bottom border is filled with cresting waves punctuated by three, three-pronged mountains and studded with auspicious objects (jewels, coral, rhino horns, and ribboned scrolls). The top border is blank (and was once folded over, thus showing a different yellow than the rest of the textile). A light-weight, cloud-pattern lining is attached to the reverse.

Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, Yongzheng to early Qianlong reign, early-mid 18th century
Medium
Silk embroidered with silk and metallic threads
Dimensions
H x W: 209 x 216.3 cm (82 5/16 x 85 3/16 in)
Geography
China
Credit Line
Purchase — Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program and partial gift of Richard G. Pritzlaff
Collection
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Accession Number
S1991.142
On View Location
Currently not on view
Classification(s)
Costume and Textile
Type

Textile: embroidery

Keywords
China, couching, dragon, embroidery, lotus, Pritzlaff collection, Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), satin stitch, WWII-era provenance
Provenance

By 1946 to no later than 1948
Wu Laixi 吳賴熙 (d. ca.1949-1950) reportedly acquired several objects from decedents of noble Chinese families [1]

By 1948 to 1991
Richard G. Pritzlaff (1902-1997), from Wu Laixi, mode of acquisition unknown [2]

From 1991
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery acquired through partial gift and partial purchase from Richard G. Pritzlaff [3]

Notes:
[1] Wu Laixi 吳賴熙 (alternate romanization: Wu Lai-hsi) was an antiquities dealer who often sold high-quality, imperial goods sourced from Chinese nobles, among other sources. Active in the 1930s and 1940s, Wu Laixi purchased portraits in China, reportedly for his personal collection and for resale; he took great pride in his collection, labeling himself as the first collector of Chinese ancestor portraits.

In 1937, Wu sold portraits to the American, Richard G. Pritzlaff, who was visiting China. Pritzlaff and Wu remained in touch for the remainder of Wu's life. This portrait was one of those sold in 1937, according to conversation between Jan Stuart and Richard Pritzlaff in 1990 held at Pritzlaff's New Mexican Ranch. See also Jan Stuart & Evelyn S. Rawski, Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits (Stanford & Washington: Stanford University Press with Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 22.

[2] See note 2. Richard G. Pritzlaff was a collector of Chinese art and a rancher who initially raised cattle but then became a well-known breeder of Arabian horses. When studying landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley and then at Harvard, he developed an interest in China. He traveled there in 1937 and began collecting Chinese objects. For Pritzlaff's account of how he acquired his collection, see letter addressed "Dear Sir" from Pritzlaff, October12, 1988, copy in accession file.

Wu sent this painting to Pritzlaff in May 1946. See letters from Wu Laixi to Pritzlaff, May 8, 1946, copy in accession file. For information about the three shipments from Wu to Pritzlaff, see letters from Wu to Pritzlaff, September 4, 1940; June 27, 1941; June 17, 1947; and August 6, 1948, copies in accession file.

[3] For the deed of gift and purchase arrangement, see accession file.

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Wu Laixi died ca. 1950
Richard G. Pritzlaff 1902 - 1997

Description

Yellow silk panel consisting of two widths of cloth with a vertical seam on the left side (textile is presumably a fragment of a larger panel that originally consisted of three widths of cloth). Textile is embroidered with a pattern of five, five-clawed, gold-thread dragons (central one faces forward, four profile dragons arranged two to each side). A stylized lotus meander embroidered in polychrome silk threads (mostly white, blue, green, brown, and red threads) fills the rest of the main field. An especially elaborate, fully opened blossom in pink, red, and white appears over the central dragon's head. The center "seed pod" of each lotus flower is shaped like a doube "ruyi." The bottom border is filled with cresting waves punctuated by three, three-pronged mountains and studded with auspicious objects (jewels, coral, rhino horns, and ribboned scrolls). The top border is blank (and was once folded over, thus showing a different yellow than the rest of the textile). A light-weight, cloud-pattern lining is attached to the reverse.

Label

This sumptuous hanging, embroidered on imperial yellow silk, radiates an image of the emperor's legitimacy and power. The motif of a five-clawed dragon cavorting above the waves and mountains symbolizes the ruler presiding over his domain. Tucked inside a coil of the central dragon's body, a circle representing a "flaming pearl" appears. Legend recounts that only a dragon that symbolizes a just emperor is capable of capturing this magic pearl, said to be an emblem of purity.

The embroidery boasts stylized lotus flowers, which are symbols of purity and concord. At the center of each lotus, the needleworkers depicted a geometric motif shaped like a double trefoil. This is the double ruyi, an auspicious Chinese symbol meaning "as you wish." The total decorative scheme of the hanging encodes the message that the emperor is powerful and unsullied;  therefore, wishes of peace, prosperity, and happiness will be assured as long as he reigns.

The hanging now consists of two sections, but originally it had three, to display a total of nine dragons above five mountains. Nine and five are cosmic numbers. The exceptionally high quality of the embroidery, including the blending together of threads of graduated colors to shade the lotus flowers and leaves, attests to the palace provenance of this piece.

Published References
  • Jan Stuart, Evelyn S. Rawski. Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits. Exh. cat. Washington and Stanford. p. 21, fig. 4.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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