Among the very best paintings by Chinese artists from the late 18th and early 19th century are those that capture the bustling ports of Canton and Macao. The present work is an exceptional example of this genre, which emerged along with an explosion of trade between East and West during the apex of the Qing Dynasty. The Pearl River is captured with astonishing detail as it carries an array of merchant's vessels. Junks, sampans, mandarin boats, tanka and flower boats are all depicted in vibrant hues, while the island of Honam stretches along the distant horizon.
Measuring nearly 6 feet wide, this work was almost certainly composed by one of the leading Chinese trade painters of the age of a wealthy Western merchant based in Canton. While scenes like these appealed to the local pride of the wealthy Chinese elite, they were also favored and desired by wealthy European traders. Adapted, in part, to favor Western tastes, the piece still displays a distinctly Chinese aesthetic in its flattened planes, crisp lines, and clear palette. Yet, the use of shadow and slight modeling reveals the influence of the West, creating a stunning vista scene that is the perfect marriage of Eastern and Western painterly styles.
Historically, the work is representative of one of the most important periods of international trade between China and the West. Canton was the only port open to Westerns until the onset of the Opium Wars, and by the end of the 18th century, most of the major Western powers had an established presence there. Most importantly, Canton was the center of China's tea trade - by 1794 Britain alone was buying nearly nine million pounds of tea each year, all of which passed through Canton's ports. This view from Canton across the Pearl River to Honam offers a small glimpse into the bustle of trade and commerce that took place in this significant trading port, which remains a highly important hub of commerce even today.
A very similar work is currently in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Canvas: 33 3/4" high x 78 1/4" wide
Frame: 41 3/4" high x 85 3/4" wide
The Decorative Arts of the China Trade, Woodbridge, 1991, by C.L. Crossman, p. 435 (illustrated)