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Chinese (Qing dynasty), possibly for export, ca. 1760s

Shining yellow satin provides one of two backdrops for the exquisite silk embroidery on this Chinese wall hanging—it is, in fact, made of double-faced satin which reverses to sumptuous persimmon orange. An exceedingly rare instance of this type of fabric use in China, this refined example demonstrates the sophistication of eighteenth-century embroidery within the continuum of the Chinese needlework tradition. The early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) experienced significant growth in the national economy and a boom in the textile industry which catered to the upper classes. Dress and furnishings became increasingly more luxurious; workshops in Suzhou, Guangdong, Sichuan, and Hunan—locations famous for their embroidery—embellished all sorts of costume articles and soft-goods for decoration, gift-giving, daily use, and export. An important question arises regarding the intended clientele for a piece such as this. There are aspects which hint at an export destination in Europe; however, other features suggest that it may have been created for a Chinese patron. On the whole, this piece is an enigmatic blend of Western sensibilities and highly specific Chinese motifs.

Composed of three joined panels of reversible satin woven with two sets of warps, the hanging’s composition focuses on the central panel: a magnificent openwork vase, overflowing with lush blooms and supported by an asymmetrical pedestal. The flanking side panels are embroidered with delicately intertwining floral vines and zigzag columns. The vase, with bronze banding, stepped pattern of celadon green and rosy beige triangles and looping basketwork portals on the sides, shoulders and neck, is dramatically presented. A tangle of peonies and other exotic blossoms surges upwards from the confines of the striated rim, and petite carnations and morning glories reveal themselves through the lacy openings. Throughout, the floral and foliate motifs are rendered in soft shades of green, coral, peach, blue, and buff; accents of black, a typically fugitive color, survive in discrete areas. The whole embroidery was immaculately done in tightly controlled encroaching satin stitch using triple-ply silk thread. This technique is perfect for subtle shading and, because of its very nature, is ideally matched to the double-faced silk—the embroidery is identical on both sides.


The wall hanging has an overall design that certainly would have appealed to an export-market client; on closer inspection, however, some of the subject matter would only have made sense to a consumer in China. Symbolic meaning was inextricable from decoration in the Chinese idiom; auspicious motifs were often embedded in designs and deciphered by an informed observer. Here, the dramatic pedestal—its irregular contours and cavities shaped by bands of indigo, pale aqua and white—is in the form of a craggy, timeweathered Scholar’s rock (taihu shi), symbolic of longevity and reliability and prized as an object of contemplation. The hybrid basketry-vase may be the hualan, a flowering basket that is the attribute of Lan Caihe, one of the Eight Daoist Immortals who grant longevity. A slender ribbon (shoudai), twisting in shades of pale coffee and cream, winds around the vase, ending in a bow-knot flourish. The lengthy and flowing ribbon is another symbol of longevity; here, it secures a trio of interlocking blue rings, nestled in the flowers, to the vase’s rim. These rings signify Sanyuan, the Three Firsts. Each ring refers to winning first place in the provincial, metropolitan and imperial levels of the Chinese civil service examinations. The propitious phrase lianzhong sanyuan—“May you achieve the three successive firsts”—is represented by the entwined rings and puns verbally and visually on the Chinese characters for “circular” and “first,” both pronounced yuan.

The most distinctively Western feature seen here are the two vertical floral ropes punctuated by flowerheads at each bend. Stylistically, this pronounced meander is a dominant component of European silk designs of the 1760s—it is not a motif found in Chinese arts. This inclusion may have been at the behest of a European merchant who wished his imports to have an au courant look. Alternately, given the bright yellow of one side of the embroidery—the official Qing dynastic color—and the symbolic content, it could be that this impressive wall hanging decorated a pavilion in Yuan Ming Yuan, an architectural folly built in Beijing in European Rococo taste, and a favorite retreat for the Qianlong emperor. This may explain the mixture of Chinese motifs connoting endurance and accomplishment with a recognizable facet of “exotic” Western fashion. The furnishings for this unique summer palace have long been lost. A much taller (152”) panel of identical embroidery, also on reversible satin, is illustrated in Oriental Works of Art, Gerard Hawthorn Ltd. (2004), fig. 100. The catalogue cites that the “restoration of the Qianlong Emperor’s residence within the Forbidden City in Beijing has brought to attention the wealth of similar double-sided embroidered panels” and that it is likely that such panels were used in a palatial context.

95” H x 87” W

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