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