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Museum of Art shows Western influence in 18th and 19th century Chinese export painting

     The Hong Kong Museum of Art has just launched a new exhibition, "Artistic Inclusion of the East and West: Apprentice to Master", which showcases 51 Chinese export paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries alongside works by Western artists. The exhibition enables visitors to explore the Western techniques and aesthetic qualities found in export paintings and to look at how the Chinese artists who produced export paintings modelled their work on Western art when dealing with pictorial challenges in composition, space and depth, light and shade, ambiance and emotions, and figures and portraiture.

     Chinese export painting was a genre of painting that was produced in large quantities in Guangzhou, then known as Canton, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries when the China trade flourished and Western merchants converged on the city. Mainly executed with Western media and techniques, these images for export were produced for the Western market by Chinese artists working primarily for studios in Guangzhou. Guided by works by Western artists that were easily found in the form of prints, these Chinese artists were exposed to Western art and adapted its general principles and pictorial conventions, which were so dissimilar to those of traditional Chinese fine art.

     For this exhibition, the Hong Kong Museum of Art has specially selected a number of representative apprentices' artworks from its collection, putting them side by side with works by Western artists to let visitors observe by themselves how the Chinese painters learnt from Western painting. The exhibition enables visitors to appreciate apprentices' works with different level that show important traits, which may be regarded as some of the main features of Chinese export painting in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these artists, for example, resorted to over-embellishing adornment and partially emulating compositions or themes from their Western counterparts. Some artists managed the fundamentals and went further to challenge themselves with more difficult elements; they produced engaging trial works with meaningful errors. Others adhered to native genres and presentation, with minimal Western touches; their works were less Westernised but nonetheless were appreciated by their Western clientele. And then there were those who were doubtless the most skilled of all, whose works equalled those of Western professional artists in their level of technique.

     The exhibition is being held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until April 15, 2012.

     The Hong Kong Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Sunday to Wednesday and on Fridays, and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). Admission to the museum is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

     For details, please visit the webpage on the Hong Kong Museum of Art's website at For enquiries, call 2721 0116.

Ends/Monday, September 26, 2011


Entitled "Distant View of Guangzhou", the painting at the top was created by John Nieuhoff in 1655. It captures a view of Guangzhou's export port scene. The lower painting, entitled "View of the City of Guangzhou from Pearl River", is a typical example of many Chinese export port scenes in the 18th and 19th centuries characterised by a low horizon and a sweeping sky, placing the viewer somewhere in mid-air, far away from the shore. The style is obviously influenced by the viewpoint and exacting details of Dutch port scenes of the late 17th and 18th centuries, like those in the upper painting. The major difference lies in the water craft. In the Western work, the vessels are depicted with greater variety in types, sizes, positioning and foreshortening.


The top painting, entitled "Interior of the Sea-screen Temple, Guangzhou", was created by Auguste Borget in 1838. Borget was well versed in Western linear perspective. The eye level is correctly placed, putting the viewer in the centre of the temple hall. The interior space recedes in accurate proportion to create a sense of depth. The lower painting, entitled "Receiving Guests", shows a master receiving his guests. The Chinese export painter has also employed linear perspective, but, if you join the lines of the ceiling, the windows and the floor, you may find three different eye levels and vanishing points. The work seems to offer its viewer a mid-air viewing angle from which one may enjoy different perspectives - an effect close to the multi-perspective experience offered by traditional Chinese ink painting.


Entitled "A Tanka Boatwoman", the painting on the left was created by the renowned Western artist George Chinnery in the mid-19th century. The subject in this painting is rendered in quick but sure brushwork, with the artist's favourite device of using dashing vermillion in the cheeks and full lips, and shows the use of shadows under the arm and between the fingers. The picture on the right is a Chinese export painting entitled "Portrait of a Chinese Lady with a Small Dog". The elements, and in particular the pose of the subject, mirror those in Chinnery's "A Tanka Boatwoman", but show less sophisticated skill. Interestingly, even the background is impregnated with the formulae Chinnery used in his Chinese merchant portraits, which often included a column, a lantern, flowers in ceramic pots, antiquities and a distant landscape.




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