The original painting, attributed to the Tang painter Zhang Xuan (張萱) (c713 – c755) was lost. The present painting, attributed to Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) or his court artist is now kept in Museum of Fine Art, Boston, USA.
The painting was unsigned and undated but the scroll bears a label Tianshui mo Zhang Xuan Daolian Tu (天水摹張萱搗練圖 – Tianshui’s Replica of Zhang Xuan’s The Picture of Pounding). Tianshui is a reference to Huizong. The label was written in ‘slender gold’ script but might not be Huizong’s handwriting because if it was written by him, he would have put down the two characters ‘Yu ti (御題)’ meaning written by the Emperor. The painting was recorded in Xuanhe Painting Catalogue (宣和畫譜) – the inventory of Emperor Huizong’s collections.
The painting was originally stored in the Old Summer Garden in Beijing, which was sacked, looted and burned down during the invasion of the Anglo-French expeditionary forces in 1860 (火燒圓明園). The painting then fell into the hands of private collectors. In 1912, the masterpiece was purchased by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from a private collector in Beijing. The English title of the painting was later changed to ‘Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk‘.
A study of the painting
The painting portrays nine luxuriously adorned court ladies, two maids and a young girl working on newly woven silk in what is called ‘palace sericulture’ (gongcan 貢繭), an annual symbolic imperial rite to ensure a year’s plentiful production in silk. They formed three groups with each engaging in a distinct task related to silk production: pounding, sewing and ironing.
(1) Pounding – beating the newly woven silk to make it finer and softer
Viewing from right, the first group of four ladies are pounding the silk with long wooden poles. They stand in a diamond-shaped formation to produce the illusion of a three-dimensional space.
The artist applies bright, elegant colours to their dresses, which are richly detailed. Ladies in the painting wear breast-high ruqun (齊胸襦裙).
There are only two figures in the second part of the painting, one sitting on the ground preparing a fine thread and the other sewing while sitting on a stool. Their dresses and hairstyle were also beautifully painted.
Three court ladies are stretching and ironing a long piece of silk cloth. There are also two maids, one helping stretch the silk and the other fanning a charcoal stove for heating the iron. Also there is a young girl dressed in pink and playing around.
Again, the four figures stretching and ironing the silk are standing in a diamond-shaped formation to create a three-dimensional effect.
A study of the hairstyles and headpieces
A study of the colours and the patterns of the fabrics
A study of the hands
A study of the shoes
Tang Dynasty (618-907) is one of the dynasties in Chinese history when women has the most freedom and dignity. Such confidence also reflects on their clothing styles. Tang Dynasty clothing was lavish and brilliant, using bright colours and vibrant patterns. Women’s clothing show more skin than any other Dynasty, beaming with confidence and dignity.
People in the Tang Dynasty adored plump and chubby women instead of slender and slim ones. A plump woman symbolized her wealth and standing. All the figures in the painting are plump and round-faced.
The background is simple. No furniture except a simple stool is shown. The golden colour depicts the elegance of the court ladies.
Zhang Hongxing (2013) Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900, V & A Publishing, ISBN 978-1-851-77756-3