In the days before computers and phones existed, imagination played a major role in creating works of art. Artists often had to depict historic scenes which they were never present at, and at times their artistic license was stretched pretty far.
Such was the case with 18th century French tapestry designer, Francois Boucher, when he was commissioned by French emperor Louis XV to design a series of tapestries for the sixth Qing emperor of China, Qianlong.
These tapestries are now on display at the University Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong in the“Imagining Qianlong” exhibition, which has been created to celebrate the long history of cultural exchange between China and France.
Known as the tenure chinoise (“Chinese hangings”), they were woven using wool and silk by French craftsmen. At a whopping three metres high and four metres long, these vast textiles took from 1758 to 1760 to complete. They were presented to Qinglong in 1766, who admired them so much that he used them to decorate the halls at his Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan).
Titled “La Foire Chinoise” (“The Chinese Fair”) and “Le Repas Chinoise” (“The Chinese Meal”), these tapestries were meant to illustrate festivals and feasts of the Chinese nobles. Yet what’s most intriguing about them is that they aren’t a realistic imitation of daily life of the Qing court; in fact, Boucher had never been to China.
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Based on a limited knowledge of Chinese culture and pure imagination, Boucher’s designs feature a lot of elements which couldn’t have existed in the Chinese Qing Court, such as exotic palm trees, characters with Caucasian features, and the party style of the French Court, while only the costumes and accessories have Chinese features. It’s clear that Boucher was imagining China from a wholly western perspective.
Also included in the exhibition are 16 copper plate engravings, depicting battle scenes from Qianlong’s conquests against the Mongolians between 1755 and 1759. These engravings were also a gift from Louis XV; overseen by his engraver, Charles-Nicolas Cochin, they were sent to Qianlong by royal decree. With titles such as “Storming of the Camp at Gädän-Ola” and “Receiving the Surrender of the Ili”, these works appeased Qianlong’s desire to emphasise himself as the most powerful leader in China.
“Imagining Qianlong” not only provides an insight into the life of the Chinese emperor, but the relationship between the French and Chinese empires, and the role Louis XV played in shaping the memory of Qinglong. These tapestries and engravings have both historic and artistic value, and are evidence of how two powerful empires, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, could be brought together by art.
Compiled by Tiffany Choi