Chinese Dowry Cupboard Painting
This beautiful framed wood panel depicting a woman kneeling before a low table, likely comes from a 19th-century Chinese dowry cupboard. Dowries, a custom present across many countries throughout history, required the bride to bring property, money, or valuable items with her into a marriage. In Chinese tradition, dowries could include linens, clothing, games, musical instruments, books, jewellery, and furniture adorned with meaningful symbols. Ornately carved, lacquered, or painted chests and cupboards were popular as both functional and luxurious items which adorned a couple’s space. Decorations might include scenes of everyday life, floral motifs, brass accents, and symbols of fertility and prosperity. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), elements of ornamentation were influenced by Western culture and artistic styles such as the Baroque and Rococo, though this example retains a more traditional style. The woman seen here sits or kneels before a table upon which rest two brightly coloured boxes, a tall white vase containing pink flowers, and two small red drinking vessels. She smiles subtly, her eyes cast in our direction as she raises her left hand in an indiscernible gesture, with her right tucked into the voluminous sleeves of her traditional red and gold garment. Floral patterns adorn her robes, and repeating blue motifs form a border along the outer edges of the panel. Though darkened with age, this image highlights a rich history of love and tradition, imbuing this everyday object with life.
At this time in China, the First Sino-Japanese War occured from 1894–1895. The Chinese Qing Dynasty clashed with Japan over the control of Korea, China’s most important client state at the time. Its location opposite the Japanese islands, and its bountiful natural resources of coal and iron attracted Japan’s interest. After six months of continued successes by the Japanese, and the loss of the important Weihaiwei port, the Qing government was forced to sue for peace in February, 1895. This conflict marked the emergence of Japan as a major world power.