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'For over a year I have scarcely done anything else than paint on glass. A large number of beautiful large mirrors are brought from Europe, which the mandarins of Canton buy from the merchant ships and offer to the emperor... This type of painting is all the more beautiful because, when seen from a short distance, it seems as if the figures, animals, landscape or any other design is not painted on the mirror but reflected; one's face can be seen in the gaps left by the painting, which makes for very attractive variety. This type of painting would not find disfavour in Europe, especially if it were done in good taste.'

(An extract from a letter written by Brother Attiret, a court painter to the Emperor Qianlong, dated to 1741, reprinted in Thierry Audric, Chinese Reverse Glass Painting 1720 -1820, An Artistic meeting between China and the West, Oxford, 2020, slipcover.)

Reverse glass painting refers to a painting technique in which paint is applied to glass, but the image is viewed by turning the glass over to look through the glass at the completed composition. In the 16th century, this painting technique had become popular in Europe and was most commonly used to depict religious subjects and portraits of the nobility. By the middle of the 18th century, the technique of reverse painting on glass had been adopted by Chinese artisans and quickly achieved popularity amongst local and foreign patrons. Although by 1696 Beijing had an imperial glass workshop, supervised by Jesuit Kilian Stumpf, the production of windows or mirrored glass was not achieved locally until the 19th century. Therefore, in the 18th century, artisans began painting on imported mirrored glass, tracing the outlines of their designs on the back of the silvered plate using a special steel implement, scraping away the mirrored backing to reveal the glass that could then be painted in minute sections, or in a more complex technique by painting the composition directly onto un-mirrored glass. Although favoured at the Chinese court, these paintings were predominantly produced for export to Europe as part of the new global maritime trade in luxury goods, which generated a fashion in Europe for all things Chinese.

'Artistic unions between China and the West are rare, and rarer still are successful attempts to create an art inspired by the two pictorial traditions, which are pleasing to both Chinese and Western art lovers. The first and best known of these productive attempts is represented by Sino-European works of architecture and painting: the summer palace European pavilions, Giuseppe Castiglione's paintings and Matteo Ripa's engravings, created by Jesuits under the reign and on the order of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796). But a second achievement was in Chinese reverse glass painting, which was more surprising because it arose spontaneously, without being ordered by the emperor, and was destined, right from its inception, for both Chinese and Western upper classes. In one of the many porcelain painting workshops in the little streets of Canton port, the first reverse glass painting was created, around 1720- heralding works of art that would beguile Chinese and Western nobility alike, and would take their place in the most elegant houses.' (ibid., p. 166) The Chinese paintings typically depicted idealised landscapes with figures dressed in traditional Chinese costumes enjoying leisurely activities. These items were so highly prized that once they had arrived in Europe, the paintings were often framed in specially designed giltwood Chippendale, or Chinoiserie style frames. The Chinese glass paintings were characterised by elaborate compositions, rich colours and fine detailing. The most refined examples appeared in the late 18th century and went into the art collections of the nobility of Europe.

It is believed that reverse glass paintings were first introduced into India towards the end of the 18th Century by Parsi or Chinese traders. An early example of the trade with Indian patrons is represented by a family portrait of an Indian noble, Shuja-ud-Daula (1732-1775), now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum (Museum Purchase, 1996 AE85329), which was painted in Canton. It was transposed from an engraving, which was itself produced from a painting by the British artist Tilly Kettle (1735-1786). The style, and specifically the use of stars on the inner frame, allows this painting to be dated to the very end of the 18th century. The technique of reverse glass painting was unknown in India at the time, and this painting reveals the link which had been established between the Indian aristocracy and Chinese reverse glass painters.The market for these paintings flourished in the western regions of India during the late 18th Century, and the popularity of these paintings spread throughout India over the 19th century. Over time, Indian artisans learnt the technique and began to produce reverse glass paintings that depicted Indian subjects that were more in keeping with the tastes of their local patrons.

The Indian artisans who created reverse glass paintings belonged to a community of painters, wood carvers and gilders. The main regions of manufacture were spread across South India, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Each region developed their own style and sensibilities, often inspired by local traditions and artistic techniques. In the South, reverse glass paintings portrayed deities in vibrant colours, and instead of using mirrors they added metallic foils in various colours to the paintings. The style and technique was influenced by locally produced Tanjore paintings which were created on wood and inset with semi-precious stones, and depicted a similar range of religious subjects and mythological scenes.

Western Indian reverse glass paintings are thought to have been created by Chinese artists who had moved to India. The style was characterised by a combination of Indian and Chinese elements and the subjects depicted ranged from portraiture, to landscapes, to still lifes. In the latter half of the 19th Century, with the rise of photography and cheap oleographic prints (such as those produced by the Raja Ravi Verma printing press), reverse glass painting went into decline and had almost entirely disappeared as an art form by the 20th century. Early examples of this much travelled technique have now become highly desirable amongst a new generation of collectors who admire the laborious technique of these lively compositions.


A Court Scene; An Interior Scene; An Interior Scene

19th Century

Reverse painting on glass

16 1/4 x 23 1/2 in. (41.3 x 59.7 cm.); 14 1/4 x 20 1/4 in. (36.2 x 51.3 cm.); 14 3/8 x 20 1/8 in. (36.5 x 51.1 cm.) (3)

* Antiquity or Art Treasure - Non-exportable Item. Please refer to the Terms and Conditions of Sale.

₹ 700,000.00 ( Low est. )


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