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Portrait of Prince Zhuang
China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

Portrait of Oboi
China, Qing dynasty

Portrait of a first rank lady
Qing dynasty
Art from the East
by Fred Stern

It is a surprising story. A New Mexican horse-breeder single-handedly brought a treasure trove of imperial ancestral portraits out of the turbulence of 1940s China to America. He then sold the collection to Ross Perot. But Perot did not live up to his promise of creating a museum for them.

Richard G. Pritzlaff (1902-1997), the New Mexico collector in question, then bought the scrolls back and offered them to the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in 1989, where a part-donation, part-sales agreement was worked out. The people at the Sackler were incredulous that this hoard could have been in private hands.

Years have passed. Now restored and relined, the 38 portraits of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) are on display in "Worshipping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits" at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., June 17-Sept. 9, 2001.

The portraits were used in the quasi-religious, iconic cult of ancestor worship in China. Adherents believe that their dead ancestors really never leave the world, but form a permanent link with living family members. The deceased are reached through their images, which are offered prayers, food and burning incense.

Today, photographs are often used, but in the past portraits were painted, often posthumously. All parts of society participate in this ritual. While members of the aristocracy may have many portraits on long scrolls, other classes have only one or two. On display at the Sackler are individual images as well as truly multigenerational scrolls with upward of 100 portraits in one presentation.

Why this ancestor worship? The Chinese belief that ancestors provide three important benefits: longevity, prosperity, progeny.

Most of the scrolls show fully robed, seated men and women in frontal focus with imperturbable gaze. But not all. Some are caught in side views, standing or simply reclining.

Let's look at some of the portraits. Illustrated here is a portrait of Prince Zhuang. His high cheekbones were signs of great authority. His meek expression contrasts with the exalted setting. He is wearing the chaofu (a winter ceremonial costume) with a peacock feather in his hat indicating his high rank.

Next is Prince Oboi, who served as regent for the Child emperor in the Kangxi reign. But he proved to have been too domineering. He was arrested and died in prison. His otherworldly demeanor indicates that this portrait was done centuries later, probably around 1880.

Finally, the third image shows a court lady of the late Qing dynasty (about 1890). She was a dame-consort (a sort of concubine) judging by her attire, a very toned-down version of imperial togs. Her son apparently painted this portrait.

Censers and other altar furnishings as well as imperial badges enhance this brilliant show.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.