Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700

Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits

The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery presents “Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits” from June 17 through Sept 9, 2001. This large exhibition contains intricately detailed, brightly colored, nearly life-size portraits, as well as textiles, furniture and other Chinese objects created between 1451 and 1943.

Drawn mainly from the collections of the Sackler and neighboring Freer Gallery of Art, the exhibition also includes a number of loans from the Portland Museum of Art; the Art Museum, Princeton University; The Royal Ontario Museum; the Phoenix Art Museum; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and private collectors.

“Worshiping the Ancestors” is the first exhibition in the West in more than a half-century to focus on Chinese ancestor portraits, and is both the largest and the most rigorous in explaining the history and socio-religious importance of this category of painting,” says Freer and Sackler galleries Director Milo Beach.

In China, ancestor worship has long been considered a cornerstone of the culture. Rituals dedicated to the ancestors were meant to honor them and ensure that the ancestors’ spirits would bestow blessings of health and prosperity on their descendants. Portraits of deceased parents and forebears have served as a focus for these private family rituals since the 16th century. Before the invention of the camera, painting was the only method available to capture and record a face for posterity. In modern times, photography has for the most part replaced paintings as a means of recording images of family members. This exhibition therefore provides a rare opportunity to discuss this vanishing form of memorial portraiture, its techniques and practices, while also analyzing the costumes, rugs, furniture and jewelry of the period described.

At the core of the exhibition are 38 portraits of members of the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) imperial family and China’s social elite. Most of these are drawn from an unusually large collection of 85 Chinese figure paintings from the 15th to the mid-20th centuries that were obtained by the Sackler in the early 1990s.

In 1989 a colorful, 87- year-old New Mexican horse breeder named Richard G. Pritzlaff (1902-1997) called the Sackler to offer his extensive collection of portraits to the nation. Pritzlaff was unknown to anyone at the Sackler but his interest in Chinese art had begun with his study of landscape architecture at Berkeley and his visits to nearby Chinatown in San Francisco, where he was intrigued by Chinese culture. In 1937 he traveled to China and acquired a large quantity of objects and paintings that he shipped back to the United States.

Historically, ancestor portraits were kept in the family and rarely exhibited publicly. Possession of the image of someone else’s ancestor was considered taboo, even dangerous. Many ancestor portraits reached the marketplace however, following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and during the political upheaval and war with Japan that occurred during the first half of the 20th century. Pritzlaff had acquired his collection from the preeminent, internationally respected collector/dealer Wu Lai-hsi. Wu was one of the first modern collector/dealers to recognize the artistic value of these portraits and collected them in quantity. Because of a decline in his circumstances and concern for the safety of his own portrait collection, during the 1940’s Wu sent Pritzlaff his entire collection of portraits with instructions to keep or sell them piecemeal. Instead, Pritzlaff bought them all.

Over the next several decades Pritzlaff tried to interest a number of galleries in the portraits but their value in the West was largely unrecognized. In the mid-1980s they were owned briefly by Ross Perot who had seen them during a visit Pritzlaff’s ranch. But when Perot failed to build a museum for their display as Pritzlaff thought he had promised, Pritzlaff bought the portraits back and continued his quest to find them an appropriate permanent home. Upon receiving his initial phone call, Sackler curator Jan Stuart and her colleague Shen Fu, were skeptical about Pritzlaff’s claims. After examining the collection, however, they realized that they had stumbled across a treasure trove of aesthetically appealing, historically and anthropologically significant material.

All the portraits, some of which were painted from life and others posthumously, were dusty and had to be cleaned. In some cases the paintings had to be remounted, in many cases flaking pigment had to be consolidated. Some of the silk borders and paper backing also needed to be smoothed, mended or replaced as did hanging and rolling rods. In 1997 a major grant was obtained from Fidelity Investments through the Fidelity Foundation enabling three conservators to devote two years to this painstaking restoration project.

Almost all the portraits in the exhibition were painted in workshops by anonymous artists, and while most date to the Qing, one stellar example from the earlier Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is also on view along with several less-formal portraits. Several representations of the same individual, as well as sets of family portraits are on view along with a painter’s sketchbook of classic faces from which descendants could select appropriate features to reconstruct images of deceased relatives from memory. Also included in the exhibition are a throne, a chair and altar vessels similar to those pictured in the portraits, as well as clothing, gold hat finials and other adornments similar to those worn by the portraits’ subjects. The exhibition will travel at a later date to other locations in the United States.

This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of Fidelity Investments through the Fidelity Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections-Based Research Program, and Shirley Z. Johnson. Publication of the accompanying book is supported by a major grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.


A fully illustrated 216-page book published by Stanford University Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which includes images of most of the Sackler’s Chinese portrait collection as well as analytical essays, accompanies the exhibition.


A symposium entitled “Ancestors, Priests, and Gods: Portraits in East Asia” will be held at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on Saturday, June 16, from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition and symposium are organized by Jan Stuart (Freer and Sackler Galleries) and Evelyn Rawski (University of Pittsburgh). Symposium papers will be presented by an international group of specialists in anthropology, art history, history and religious studies and will focus on ancestral and other types of formal commemorative portraits-both paintings and sculpture-in China, Korea and Japan. Issues of influence, convergence and divergence in these three traditions will be considered, as well as the religious significance of portraits from imperial times to the 20th century. Free to the public, the symposium is sponsored by the Else Sackler Foundation in memory and honor of Mrs. Else Sackler.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at