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Artwork of the motnh - The walk in the Chinese garden

MADE IN CHINA
The walk in the Chinese garden


 

Anonymous
The Walk in the Chinese Garden, 19th century
Oil on canvas, 44.5 cm x 58.5 cm
Bequest by Maxime de Soer de Solières in 1936, no. 517
Inventory number: BA.AAN.05b.1936.000948 (BA 1609)
Museum of Fine Arts

The collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts contains atypical works whose origin is sometimes quite mysterious. Such is the case with this oil on canvas depicting four Chinese in the garden. Let's take a trip, the time of a dream, by immersing ourselves in the unusualness of this Chinese walk.

AN AMBIGUOUS IDENTITY

This painting is erroneously identified as a "chinoiserie", i.e. an early 18th century Western painting depicting a fantasised Orient in the form of playlets. During the 17th century, China timidly opened its borders. A few isolated travellers brought back extraordinary tales from their journeys, which encouraged curiosity about these unknown lands.

The following century saw the blossoming of the phenomenon: private mansions all over Europe were decorated with these decorative chinoiseries. Visitors to the Curtius Museum will find them in the salons of the Hôtel de Hayme de Bomal.

However, The Walk in the Chinese Garden has singular characteristics that differentiate it from chinoiseries. Starting with its "autonomous" frame, which makes it an independent decorative furniture object, free of any architectural integration. The work also stands out for its chromatic richness, the detailed rendering of its decoration and its modest dimensions.

Closer examination reveals that another century and another continent were the scene of its creation. Further investigation in other museum collections reveals that the small size of the work and its subject matter are particularly specific to an Asian production

SOUVENIRS FROM CHINA DEDICATED TO EXPORT

It is a painting mass-produced in Canton, Macao and Hong Kong in the 19th century for Western customers. These cities and their ports were flourishing and became a meeting place for merchants from all over the world. Seeing the profit to be made, Chinese merchants devoted themselves exclusively to the production of decorative souvenirs that appealed to a clientele of Western collectors: portraits painted on glass, oil paintings depicting views of ports, gouaches and watercolours, Chinese furniture, gilded lacquer objects and... small oil paintings depicting interior scenes or walks in the gardens.

Chinese painters' studios opened in large numbers and, remarkably, used Western techniques such as oil on canvas or gouache on paper. This type of painting was sent by the whole cargo to Europe but also to the United States. This production can still be found today in private collections and in several museums around the world.

THE ANIMATED LANDSCAPE OF THE CORK COLLECTIONS

The scene depicts a distinguished Chinese woman wearing a neat suit. A maid serves as her guide. Two children accompany them and carry a basket of flowers. The setting is simple but detailed.

In the background is a wide expanse of water bordered by white pavilions and walls surrounding private gardens. Two large soap trees stand behind the walkers: ornamental trees that produce beautiful yellow bunches of flowers in the summer that perfume the gardens. Colourful flowerbeds line the promenade.

One element is a must in the traditional Chinese garden. This is the Scholar's Rocks: a natural or sculpted rock favoured by Chinese scholars. They have been maintained for generations, sometimes for more than a thousand years, and are placed along water features. The practice dates back to the 7th century AD.

This detail shows the powerful symbolism of the Chinese garden, which is seen as a scale model of the universe. It is a place of pleasure but also a medium of contemplation. Its construction is based on fundamental principles that compromise between perfect balance (Feng Shui) and pure aesthetics.

With The Walk in the Chinese Garden, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège demonstrates, if proof were needed, the great wealth of its collections. Very few museums have these Chinese export paintings.

Grégory Desauvage
Curator
Museum of Fine Arts