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Exhibition shows impressions of China by French artists

About 40 valuable paintings recording 18th and 19th century impressions of the Chinese people, landscape and customs by French artists are currently being showcased at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until October 30.

The exhibition, "French Vision of China", featuring historical works selected from the museum's collection, was organised to coincide with the events of the "Year of France" in China in 2005. The oil paintings, watercolours and prints depicting picturesque scenes of Guangzhou, Macau and Hong Kong by the French artists who travelled to China are indicative of the cultural exchanges that took place between France and China over the last three centuries.

Examples of Chinese export goods including silverware, lacquer ware and carving in ivory and tortoise shell are also displayed to illustrate items that were popular in the French market.

The star exhibit is a set of 16 engravings that show Emperor Qianlong's victories in Xinjing. It is a unique example of artistic confluence: the pictures were designed by Western painters in Beijing, while the copperplates were engraved and the printing executed in France.

The earliest official contact between France and China was made in the 17th century, during the late Ming (1368-1644) to early Qing dynasty (1644-1911). When Louis XIV (1643-1715) ascended the throne, he sought active measures to promote missionary activities and to expand overseas trade in the Far East. The first expedition to China arrived in Beijing in 1688. Many of the missionaries were Jesuits who were learned mathematicians and scientists.

The missionaries were well received by the Chinese court because of their great knowledge and skills. In particular, the emperors Kangxi (who ruled from 1662-1722) and Qianlong (who ruled from 1736-1795) welcomed their skills and put then to service. Hence Western science and technology including astronomy, geography, calendar, and various art forms were introduced during those periods.

Matteo Ripa (1682-1743), an Italian missionary who served at the court during the later part of Kangxi's reign, showed the emperor works of copper engravings. Kangxi then ordered a set of engravings to be made depicting 36 different aspects of the scenery of the Summer Palace in Chengde. He also commanded the making of the map of the Chinese Empire, "The Royal General Map". His grandson, Emperor Qianlong, further commissioned his military victories to be recorded in this same medium. And a number of missionary painters, who worked at the court during the Qianlong period, excelled in oil painting and often made portraits for the emperor.

The political contacts also promoted trading activities. The French East India Company was established in 1664, chartered by Louis XIV and planned by his prime minister Jean Baptiste Colbert (1661-1683). The first French merchant ship "Amphitrite" arrived in Guangzhou in 1698.

The 19th century was an age of exploration and expansion in France. In this spirit, a number of French artists travelled to China, either as official artists of the French fleet or as individual travellers. They recorded their impressions in their sketches and paintings, and some published them after they returned to France.

China became a land of mystery and beauty in the Western imagination. Artists who never visited China were inspired by records of those who did. Drawing on export goods from the East such as paintings, ceramics and silk textiles, they were inspired to create impressions of the people and landscape.

The French artists looked with a foreigner's eye at the people, the landscape and customs, and recorded the exotic, the curious, the aesthetic, and the inspiring with their sketches, watercolours, oil and prints. Complementing visual images with notes and diaries, these records reflect the artists’ personal experiences.

The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm daily and is closed on Thursdays (except those falling on public holidays). Admission 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 enquiries, call 2721 0116 or visit the Museum of Art's website, .

Ends/Saturday, May 28, 2005
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