Monday, June 16, 2008

Paying Homage to the Past

Have you ever noticed how Chinese ancestral portraits seem to grace many stylish interiors? Once I spotted them in one interior, it seemed that I started to see them everywhere. Of course, the paintings found in the interiors below were used strictly for decorative purposes, and I can certainly see why. There is something very dignified and regal about these portraits, and they also seem to add a little touch of Eastern exoticism to their surroundings. But what we shouldn't forget is that the purpose of these paintings was anything but decorative.

Ancestral portraits were long an important part of a Chinese culture which revered and worshipped family ancestry. From what I've read, it seems that these paintings were commissioned by family members not just out of respect for their forebears, but also out of fear. A disgruntled ancestor might be tempted to become a ghost and make life difficult for the living. In order to prevent this from happening, and to elicit good will and fortune, the portraits were worshipped by family members either in their homes or at family temples. Ceremonies, which at times included offerings to the ancestors as well as kowtowing, were often performed before these portraits.

So with this in mind, here are a few of the interiors that I have found which display these ancestral portraits. In a way, it seems that even today these portraits still command respect and awe, much as they did centuries ago.

(If any of you are experts on Asian art and wish to add to this, please do so by commenting- I would love to learn more about these portraits.)

Frances Elkins used them in a few of her projects, including one of her most famous: the library of Mr. and Mrs. Kersey Coates Reed. I think the portrait looks smashing against the Hermes goatskin paneled wall.

Jean-Michel Frank tried his hand at stage design in this set from "Les Fleurs des pois". The Chinese portrait rather dominates the set.

Yves Saint Laurent was obviously a fan.

Here are a pair of Chinese ancestral portraits in a contemporary setting- the living room of Liz and Steve Weinstein, decorated by Miles Redd (photo from Elle Decor; photographer Simon Upton)

Image at top: A pair of ancestor portraits, c. 1700-1800. From the collection of the Victoria and Albert


  1. The only thing I know about Chinese ancestor portraits is that they are idealized images, ie they don't actually resemble the person intended, in the majority of cases. Why is this is the case, I do not know. I have a rather large one in my dining room, depicting a mandarin and his several wives/concubines. The gals all look almost identical, though surely he didn't marry sextuplets.

  2. Miles Redd is a decorating genius. I love the combination of the orientalism with zebra and the horns. Absolutely beautiful!

  3. I'm a fan of these. My parents have a pair. You really assembled some stunning examples though!

    The Elkins library is just stunning.

  4. Anonymous11:37 AM

    These portraits look very regal because, they are actually portraits are of emperors and empresses of different dynasties.

  5. I remember a wonderful Chinese ancestor portrait in a room by Frances Elkins in a San Francisco apartment. What was the client's name? I think the surname started with a W.

  6. I am just crazy about the top image. That is so San francisco of the period. San Francisco style had a sophticated "East meets West" approach in those days. Gumps, the department store is totally different now, but in its old location it was a real tastemaker. They made legendary purchases of art in asia, and a piece of chinese porcelain, japanese screens and kang tables with coromandel panels mixed continental antiques really typified the look. Thanks for showing that!

  7. Love, love, love these. Very difficult to find but the real ones are old and large and REALLY make a statemment. If you can be patient w/ ebay, there are many fakes but a few old ones (easy to tell by the wear and patches..but I have a friend who has one and even the patches are part of the beauty). Thank you for this. I will forward this to her.

  8. Love the Miles Redd room (what a surprise!) - even OKA Direct used to sell a wonderful pair - it's been discontinued I noticed, but still - it was such a wonderful item for a catalogue to sell! Imagine.

    Great post - as usual.

  9. Anonymous8:26 PM

    I love these ancestor portraits. In addition to the history, what gorgeous colors, outfits, jewelry. I want a pair.

  10. These are all lovely, but I love that Miles used a pair of them in his design, and scaled them perfect as well. Great post Jennifer!


  11. I have always loved Chinese ancestral portraits. Guess that goes with my love of portraits of all types. I'll never forget the first two I saw hanging in a living room amongst french antiques and low sofas back in the early 80's. Its classic and will never go out of style.

  12. I see them around here in Bangkok, and obviously a lot in Hong Kong, when I lived there before. There are a lot of reproductions, and possibly because of the fact that there is an abundance, and for the reasons you mention - their somewhat "spooky" characteristic, they are not something that I would use in any decoration, but I can see the fascination with their visual effect in the West, and I suppose there is no real difference to having family portraits of dead ancestors as in Europe, although the ghost connotation is absent in that culture.

  13. Anonymous6:51 AM

    I have a pair and they are huge. One of a matriarch and another of a couple. They have a lot of personality and are really powerful in the room. We were told they are antique reproductions that were done in the late 1800's copying some from an earlier period. There is a really great article for anyone interested in their history and preservation:

    Excellent post!

  14. What a thoughtful and interesting post and question. Thank you.

    18th C art is so fine and fascinating it's frustrating not to be able to travel there! I understand those portraits hung in temples, hence the large scale. Useful to carry a wall.

    The vivid colors are so wonderful, too, and the have a kind of flatness that still feels modern.

    Since Elkins and Frank worked together it doesn't seem surprising both would use them.

    I find Miles Redd to be a most intelligent designer, in all ways.

  15. Thank you all for the additional information. It seems like others are as taken with these as I am!

  16. My husband's aunt - possibly the most stylish women I know has a pair in her living room. They are stunning.

  17. I just saw a pair of ancestral portraits in a recent issue of Town & Country. I believe it was the May issue? This post shows some really stunning and timeless examples. Thanks for yet another great post!

  18. Anonymous4:19 PM

    so pretty! It is a single painting, not a pair, but this is on ebay:

  19. Anonymous9:59 PM

    These are lovely examples, thank you for sharing them.
    Does anyone know of an artist that is making such paintings now?