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: Institute Acquires a Notable Group of Chinese Textiles


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Art Institute has recently acquired, through the purchase of the William E. Colby Collection of Chinese textiles, a group of imperial ceremonial and court robes, woven and embroidered fabrics, that place it among the front rank of museums owning such collections today. Until 1940, when it was published in The Connoisseur, the large and important Colby Collection of San Francisco was known to a relatively small public. By members of that public, however, it was recognized as a collection high in quality and formidable in range. It is composed of some three hundred and forty examples of Chinese textile art from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Ch'ing. Of these examples well over half are costumes, including imperial sacrificial robes, robes worn by members of the imperial family, imperial Buddhist and Taoist priest robes, and imperial theatrical robes. The balance of the collection contains woven and embroidered picture hangings, throne furnishings, altar frontals, wall hangings, banners, and rugs. It also includes a magnificent Buddhist scroll in silk k'o ssu bearing the personal seal of the Emperor Ch'ien Lung. The collection was purchased through the Dunwoody Fund and catalogued with the assistance of Alan Priest, Curator of Far Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It will be exhibited in the East galleries beginning April 13, 1943.Important as the collection is as a whole, it is from the point of view the various costumes that it will prove most illuminating in the study of Chinese textiles. Not only does it contain fifteen imperial ceremonial robes bearing the twelve ancient symbols, but it also contains two robes that have been certainly, and one that has been tentatively, identified as coming from the tomb of Kuo Ch'ing Wang, the seventeenth son of K'ang Hsi, which makes it possible to work both forward and back from a certain date and so arrived at an accurate picture of successive styles of the Ch'ing Dynasty.When the Kuo Ch'ing Wang tomb was rifled in the early 1930s and its contents thrown on the market in China, a large proportion of the material it contained was discovered, and acquired, by Laurence Sickman, Curator of Oriental Art at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery. Stray pieces made their way into other collections, however, and it is three of these strays which have been so helpful in dating the robes in the Institute's collection. Already it has been possible to set back to K'ang Hsi two of the robes in the group of thirteen purchased by the Institutes a year ago, and to K'ang Hsi or Yung Ch'ng numerous examples both of robes and hangings in the present collection which were formerly attributed to Ch'ien Lung.Thus the K'ang Hsi and Yung Ch'ng styles can be established by working back from the robes of Kuo Ch'ing Wang, who died in 1738, and the Ch'ien Lung and subsequent styles by working forward. More important still is the fact that these styles are established in ceremonial robes bearing twelve symbols, which would presumably be the first to register any change, so that there is a clear sequence of twelve-symbol robes from Yung Ch'ng through Tao Kuang. Unfortunately, the final four emperors of the Ch'ing dynasty are not represented by sacrificial robes, but dated priest robes of the Hsien F'ng and T'ung Chih period, and a dated hanging of the Kuang Hsü period, have been valuable in dating imperial robes of the later reigns. Because the ceremonial robes constitute such an interesting bit of historical evidence concerning the long development of style at the Chinese court, this Bulletin will be given over to a brief description of a part of that group. Other textiles will be dealt with in the May Bulletin.For the K'ang Hsi type of imperial ceremonial robe one must turn to the Metropolitan Museum, where a fine example in embroidered gauze is to be found. In the Institute's newly acquired collection of robes the K'ang Hsi style is to be observed only in a magnificent series of nonsacrificial garments of brocaded and embroidered satin. Beginning with the Yung Ch'ng period, however, a series of fifteen ceremonial robes illustrates the ceremonial dress of Chinese emperors over a period of four reigns. The key robes in this series, which mark the change over from reign to reign, were established by Mr. Priest. All are embroidered and all but one are of yellow silk or stain. In each case the robes show a family resemblance to the style of the preceding reign, but details such as length, the treatment of the border, the use of color, or the drawing of the dragons, marks them as products of a new period. For example, the treatment of the waves in the Eternal Sea area of the Ch'ien Lung robe reflects the Yung Ch'ng style, but the striped section is much deeper, and the robe itself considerably longer. Ch'ien Lung's height—he was the tallest of the Ch'ing emperors—is a deciding factor in attributing ceremonial robes to this reign. Indeed, the length of the various robes provides valuable evidence in several instances. The Chia Ch'ing robe is at first glance deceptively close to the Ch'ien Lung, but the fact that it is some five inches shorter indicates that it can only be Chia Ch'ing. The next robe in the series is also Chia Ch'ing, but it has a blue diaper ground instead of a gold, and is notable for the use of a strong purple in the color scheme, the first appearance of this color in all the long series. It carries over into the Tao Kuang key robe and is common from then on. This Tao Kuang robe is differentiated from the Chia Ch'ing by its size, both in breadth and length, and by a certain tightening up in the treatment of the waves in the border. These five robes furnish the key to the dating of the entire collection.The remaining ceremonial robes in the group follow the style laid down by these robes, but some of them present interesting variations. The Yung Ch'ng example of blue k'o ssu is distinctive because of the placement of the twelve ancient symbols. These, it will be remembered, could be worn only by the emperor in his function of making sacrifices to heaven, the earth, and other elements. Normally they are to be found on the breast, on the shoulders, below the back of the neck, below the breast and at the bottom of the robe in front, and below the shoulders at the bottom of the robe in back. In this case eight of the symbols appear in the border: four in front and four in back.The reason for this variation is unknown, but it presents fascinating possibilities. Was it just a whim, or does it represent a determined effort to break away from tradition? Perhaps an eighteenth-century Maury Paul may yet turn up in the Ch'ing archives, and the puzzle be solved.Solved then, too, may be the slight alteration in the next two robes, one of yellow k'o ssu for Ch'ien Lung, and one of coral red for Chia Ch'ing. In both cases the robe has been taken up in the area of the collar band, so that the symbol of the constellation is almost obliterated in the former, and the symbol of distinction in the latter. Both are present, but barely visible. One can only suppose that the lengths of k'o ssu, usually so carefully woven for each individual robe, were faulty due to some mistake in measurement. And it may also be supposed that any such miscalculations were greeted with imperial wrath.Another interesting variation to be observed in the Ch'ien Lung robe is the diapered ground, in this example formed of quatrefoil medallions in blue-green on the yellow ground. The diaper ground, both in woven and embroidered fabrics, appears to have become popular only with the reign of Ch'ien Lung, and is to be seen in a large number of imperial robes of that and the succeeding period.The Tao Kuang ceremonial robe of yellow k'o ssu is unusual because of the drawing in the fire and water weed symbols. Normally presented as square motifs, they are shown here as round; a minor variation but one that adds interest to this particular robe. The colors include the strong, crude purple that first appeared during the Chia Ch'ing Dynasty.These are all authentic imperial ceremonial robes up through the reign of Tao Kuang. Then comes a lapse—in which occurs nothing but a questionable robe of embroidered gauze to which the ancient symbols appear to have been added some time during the late nineteenth century—until about 1912, when we come upon the extraordinary coat of black satin. It is adorned with nine applied medallions embroidered with the twelve ancient symbols. It is the only example of its kind yet known, and a strange story goes with it. It is said to have been made especially for Yuan Shih K'ai, first president of the Chinese Republic, who had imperial ambitions, but who dared not begin his career by assuming the proper robes of an emperor and so adopted the twelve ancient symbols in this modified arrangement. The leaders of the Republic, naturally enough, were opposed to any such scheme and blocked it successfully. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that Yuan Shih K'ai did wear this coat, for it is known that on one occasion he made the New Year sacrifices at the Altar of Heaven. All the officials wore costumes similar to this coat, designed after the Confucian ceremonial robes which anyone might wear, and it is not unlikely that Yuan Shih K'ai, wishing to wear the imperial insignia, did so in this fashion. It is an intriguing theory, despite the fact that it is unsupported by any actual proof. Proof may yet be forthcoming, through the medium of photographs or other records. But whether it doe or not, this coat will stand as an alien garment; the symbol of an individual who wished to usurp the power and the glory of imperial China which is so brilliantly reflected in this superb collection of robes and textiles.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Imperial robe of blue k'o ssu bearing the twelve ancient symbols, eight of them in the border. Chinese, Yung Cheng, 1723-1735.
  2. Imperial ceremonial robe of yellow k'o ssu with a diapered ground. Chinese, Ch'ien Lung, 1736-1795.
  3. Imperial ceremonial twelve symbol robe of coral red k'o ssu made for the emperor Chia Ch'ing, 1796-1820.
  4. Imperial ceremonial twelve symbol robe of yellow k'o ssu. Chinese, Tao Kuang period, 1821-1850.
  5. Black satin coat with the twelve ancient symbols in medallions reputedly made for Yuan Shih K'ai, first president of China.
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Source: "Institute Acquires a Notable Group of Chinese Textiles," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 32, no. 14 (April, 1943): 46-51.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009