Antique 19th-century Chinese Pith Painting, Chinese Buddha Hand Citrus Fruit




An original 19th-century Chinese watercolour painting on pith, Chinese Buddha Hand Citrus Fruit.

A beautiful and unusual painting of a Buddha's hand citrus fruit and dwarf pineapple. The highly scented Buddha's hand is a fingered citron, which is used to perfume a room or as a religious offering in Buddhist temples. According to tradition, Buddha prefers the "fingers" of the fruit to be in a position where  closed rather than open, as closed hands symbolise prayer. In China, the fruit is a symbol of happiness, longevity and good fortune. Laid down on card. This painting is one of a set of four fruit paintings on pith that we have.

Unsigned.
Some foxing marks, crease lines and surface abrasions as shown. Small losses at the left-hand corners and remnants of blue ribbon at the right-hand corners of the pith.
16.6cm x 24.8cm.
Unframed.

Delicate pith paintings by local Chinese artists were collected by Western travellers and merchants from around 1825 onwards. By 1833 the monopoly of trade by the English East India Company had come to an end, opening the China trade to dozens of British companies and seeing the number of merchants and volume of trade flourish. Paintings on pith were produced in port cities to meet the Western demand for local Chinese souvenirs. Relatively inexpensive and conveniently portable, they were often glued into albums to provide protection on the long voyage home.

Typically the paintings would depict attractive local subjects such as cultivated flora, indigenous birds and insects, and local trades, customs and costumes. The painting style would combine a traditional Chinese approach of flattened sweeps of colour with aspects of Western influence in detail and realism.

Pith paper behaves very differently from conventional rag or woodpulp paper. Rather than being plant fibres matted together into a layer, pith is composed of plant cells sliced directly from the inner tissue of the Tetrapanex papyrifera plant, native to Southern China and Taiwan. 

This unique composition makes it extremely vulnerable to damage by moisture and other environmental factors, becoming very brittle over time and subject to distinctive cracking. It is rare, therefore, that such paintings survive in pristine condition. Being routinely tipped onto album pages, they also often bear glue marks and related discolouration. 

Pith also behaves unlike conventional paper as a painting support. Watercolour and gouache paint readily absorb into the plant cells of the pith to create a rich, velvety depth of colour, and then paint pools in relief on the surface, producing exquisitely vibrant raised details, of sparkling, jewel-like intensity.

Pith paintings are a fascinating record of the history, activities and socio-cultural exchanges taking place between China and the West in the 19th century. The juxtaposition of robust vibrancy of paint and translucent fragility of support is an enchanting combination prized by collectors around the world.

Text copyright © 2016 Somerset & Wood Fine Art Ltd. All rights reserved.

Product code: JC-454


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