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Object of the Month #16
Officials and Boats
Collection of Miniature Pith Paintings (2013.01.265)
April 2016

My first thought when I saw this month’s object was to wonder why anyone would keep a box of torn strips of paper. It actually turned out to be a delicate collection of four miniature paintings from China, probably dating to the late 19th century. Stored inside a small display box with a glass cover are two paintings of Chinese officials, and two of sampan boats on the water.

The paintings are small, each only 9.3 cm x 6.0 cm (about 3.5” x 2.5”). They’re not in very good condition, and all four are broken in at least a few places. Usually paper would be described as “torn” rather than “broken,” but in this case the paper is so brittle that “broken” is really much more accurate. The paper is translucent and the colors are still vivid and bright (probably an indication that they were never regularly on display), which gives the paintings a glowing, illuminated quality.[1]

You might reasonably guess that the paper is rice paper, but a closer look shows not a single visible piece of pulp. Examined through a microscope, you would see something even more unexpected: a regular arrangement of little hollow circles. These circles are actually the open cell walls of a plant called Tetrapanax papyrifer, a member of the ginseng family. Often erroneously called rice paper, it is really pith paper, carefully shaved in scrolls from the plant’s core, and then stretched, flattened, and dried.[2]

Painted in gouache, the way in which the paint sits in and on the cell walls of the pith helps create pith paintings’ characteristic glowing appearance. The painting of the seated official also uses a technique called back painting. Behind his face and hands on the back side of the paper are small areas of what is probably white lead pigment paste, used to improve the appearance of the color on the front.[3]

The men in the two paintings are both wearing official court dress of the Qing Dynasty. The seated man is undoubtedly of higher rank, as is evident by his dress. His robe includes symbolic elements, such as the blue embroidery along the bottom hem that represents the waves on the shore, representing harmony in the land ruled by the emperor. The younger man’s robe notably has a dragon on its front. Unfortunately, the painting isn’t quite detailed enough to count the dragon’s claws. A dragon with nine claws would only have been worn by the emperor himself, while dragons with fewer claws would likely indicate a relative.[4] It is possible that the men are actually meant to be a pair. The seated man might, in fact, be the emperor himself, and the younger man perhaps a relation or an attendant. A painting in a private collection shows a young man standing next to the emperor on this throne, both wearing robes and in poses with more than a passing resemblance to those of the NMH pair.[5]

The two small boats are sampans, or fishing boats, depicted on smooth water. Both sampans have small shelters on their decks, and show a single person standing on the deck holding an unidentified object at shoulder height.

The pairing of the paintings’ two different subjects, people and boats, is not immediately an obvious one, although they were both relatively common themes at the time.[6] Other frequent subjects for pith paintings included flowers and butterflies, industry (e.g. tea, silk, and pith paper production), and, strangely, crime and punishment. While these disparate categories don’t obviously seem to have much in common, if you were to lump them together under the broad category of “curiosities” they actually make some sense.

In the 19th century, the curiosities in question would have been produced specifically to appeal to westerners in China who probably had romanticized notions about the “exotic Orient,” and would have wanted to bring home souvenirs of their travels. Paintings like these would have helped them illustrate the stories of their travels after they returned home. Whether or not the paintings were strictly accurate was another matter.[7]

Pith paintings were popular for a relatively short period of time, which helps to date this set. Growing in popularity starting in the early- to mid-1800s, they declined sharply by the turn of the century. They were sometimes called “trade paintings,” and were produced primarily for export. Pith paintings were popular in the port city of Canton (now Guangzhou), one of the treaty ports open to foreigners after the first Opium War that ended in 1842.[8] Not surprisingly, the open ports created a demand for tourist art among sea captains and sailors, and paintings like these, because of their subject matter and portable size, fit the bill.[9] Over time, as the enforcement of restrictions against foreigners outside the officially sanctioned ports began to fade, so, too, did the popularity of these paintings.[10] The advent of photography also hastened their decline.[11]

Are these paintings special or valuable? Well, yes and no. They were quite popular, but within a fairly narrow time frame. As such, they’re a window into a specific place at a specific time, as well as a glimpse of how one group (i.e. westerners) wanted to think of another group (i.e. the Chinese). Because of their moderate ubiquity they are collectible, but miniatures like these aren’t particularly sought after, especially not in this condition.

While you would be unlikely to find paintings like ours exhibited at a museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they also do have value as precursors to photography. They are snapshots in time that predate actual snapshots themselves, but with the added bonus of having been produced in color, unlike photography in its infancy. It is also worth noting that because paintings like these were in demand by foreigners, and generally produced exclusively for foreigners, relatively few are in the collections of Chinese museums today.[12]

I suspect we’ve had this box at NMH for quite a long time, and that the paintings haven’t seen the light of day in decades. They’re really beautiful in person, and well worth a visit, even in their rather compromised condition.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] The paintings (especially the seated man) remind me a bit of the work of Arthur Szyk, an early 20th century artist.

[2] DeCesare, L. (2011). The Pith Paper Collections of the Harvard University Botany Libraries. Botanical Artist, 17(2), 13. Nesbitt, M., Prosser, R., & Williams, I. (2010). Rice-Paper Plant – Tetrapanax Papyrifer: The Gauze of the Gods and its products. Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 27(1), 71.

[3] Green, F. H. (2014). Nineteenth Century Chinese Trade Paintings from the Sutro Orientalia Collection. California State Library Foundation Bulletin(110), 6.

[4] Thanks to Diana (Tingxuan) Zhu ’16 for teaching me about court dress and its symbolism.

[5] Williams, I. (2001). Views from the West—Chinese Pith Paper Paintings. Arts of Asia, 31(5), 141, 142.

[6] Interestingly, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum has collection of a dozen pith paintings called the “Officials and Boats” portfolio.

[7] Some of the depictions were definitely more romanticized than literal. Paintings of tea production, in particular, could be full of exaggeration and outright fantasy. For example, paintings of trained monkeys picking tea leaves for their owners gained some popularity. Supposedly the monkey’s owner would irritate the monkey by throwing stones at it from the ground, and the monkey would become so put out it would pull branches of tea leaves from the trees and hurl them to the ground in retaliation. Williams, I. (2008). Tea, Pith, and the Monkey Business. Magazine Antiques, 173(1), 188-190.

[8] Green, Chinese Trade Paintings, p. 4.

[9] Williams, Tea, Pith, and the Monkey Business, p. 187.

[10] Nesbitt et al., Rice-Paper Plant, p. 90.

[11] Williams, Views from the West, pp. 141-142.

[12] Green, Chinese Trade Paintings, p. 6.