CMA Thinker
Published in

CMA Thinker

Facing the Ancestors: Conserving a Chinese Ancestor Group Portrait

By: CMA Staff

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Now on view in the Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery, visitors can see a new installation titled Facing the Ancestors: Chinese Portrait and Figure Painting which features a recently conserved Chinese ancestor group portrait.

Ancestor Group Portrait 1796–1820. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Jiaqing period (1796–1820). Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper; painting: 155.2 x 89 cm. Promised gift of Joyce G. Ames in honor of her husband, B. Charles Ames

On view through February 8, 2020, the new installation celebrates both the gift and the painting’s successful remounting into a Chinese-style hanging scroll. Shortly after its arrival at the museum last year, the artwork underwent treatment in the museum’s June and Simon K. C. Li Center for Chinese Painting Conservation, as outlined in the video below.

Now on view in the Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy Gallery (240A), check out the new installation “Facing the Ancestors: Chinese Portrait and Figure Painting,” which features the pictured Chinese ancestor group portrait.

This video captures and explains the complex conservation process required to restore and remount this painting.

In the discussion below, Clarissa von Spee, Chair of Asian Art and James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art, and Yi-Hsia Hsiao, Associate Conservator of Chinese Paintings, discuss the painting and the conservation process.

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Clarissa von Spee: We are looking at an oversized Chinese Qing dynasty ancestor group portrait. In the standard frontal orientation of ancestor portraits, this scroll features six generations and is read from top to bottom, with men on the right and women on the left. Because husbands could have several wives, there are 13 men and 17 women accompanied by a female servant. Inscribed tablets note their rank and relation within the family; the bottom row contains the most recent generation, while the figure on the far right may have commissioned the painting. Square badges on the chests of court robes indicate a sitter’s rank as an official; wives would wear the same badge. Out of reverence, the clan’s descendants probably erased the family name on the scroll before it went on the art market. Scrolls of this type were hung over the home altar for worship during the New Year celebrations.

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Yi-Hsia Hsiao: This painting required extensive conservation treatment before it could go on view. First, we did an initial condition assessment of the painting in the frame. Then we disassembled the frame for a closer examination of the painting. Framed under plexiglass, the painting was in poor condition and mounted in a panel format when it arrived at the museum.

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Clarissa: We discussed the painting’s condition in order to determine the format in which the painting would be displayed. This initial assessment led to the decision to replace the old paper linings and fills and remount the painting in the traditional Chinese hanging scroll format.

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Yi-Hsia: Executed with Chinese ink and colors on xuan paper, the work displayed creases, losses through flaking, scratches, foxing, yellowing, and accretions throughout. Inactive white mold was present in the painting’s upper right corner. Additionally, an entire bunch of flowers and the hair ornaments of the two female figures at the upper left were so poorly inpainted that their style did not match the original.

Clarissa: Visitors can see a comparison of the old inpainting of the two crowns and flowers done in freehand brushwork style with the new inpainting done by Yi-Hsia in the more exact brushwork style in the video.

Before and after inpainting. Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

Yi-Hsia: After the painting’s surface was gently cleaned and washed with warm water using a goat-hair brush, the old paper linings were removed. New linings of soft, thin, toned xuan paper were applied according to traditional Chinese mounting methods. Numerous samples of the headdress ornaments and the camellia flower, often depicted in Chinese ancestor portraits, were painted on slips of sized paper before applying the best match to an area where the original paper and painting had been lost. Then the painting was spread on a drying board to flatten and even out the paper linings and patches and left to dry for one year.

Clarissa: The transformation of the painting, from before treatment to after treatment, is remarkable to see.

Yi-Hsia: Retouching and inpainting areas of loss is controversial, and Western and Eastern approaches in conservation differ: the former leaves missing areas largely untouched but in a neutral tone, while the latter keeps painted areas intact and repaints them. The new method applied here is fully reversible and was developed to find a compromise between the two traditions. Senior conservator Pingfang Zhu at the Shanghai Museum was a valuable collaborator for this undertaking.

Before and after conservation. Ancestor Group Portrait 1796–1820. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Jiaqing period (1796–1820). Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper; painting: 155.2 x 89 cm. Promised gift of Joyce G. Ames in honor of her husband, B. Charles Ames

Check out the conserved group portrait on view NOW at the CMA.

--

--

--

Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Recommended from Medium

The Women of Tiffany Studios: Clara Wolcott Driscoll Made Visible

Immersive light and shadow show “Story in Stone” with 1000㎡ LED floor screen

Life Goes on — A philosophical perspective on Pieter Bruegal’s “Landscape with the fall of Icarus”

Overlapping Identities: Feminism and Cultural Heritage

To make it as an artist you have to be an entrepreneur

VIEW: Face & Body Painting Traditions from Southern India.

Why We Need Nude Art

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland Museum of Art

More from Medium

Earth without Art Is Just … “Eh”

A Double Virgin of the Rocks!

Art Insights — A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honore Fragonard

There’s Nothing like a Real Van Gogh Watercolor