The art of reverse glass painting flourished in China during the so-called 'Kang-Qian Golden Age', under the reign of the three successive generations of Qing Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. It is a vivid example of the active economic and cultural exchange between China and the West in the Qing Empire, as the techniques both for manufacturing the material - namely flat sheets of glass - and for painting on the reverse side of these sheets originated in Europe, and was brought to China by Jesuit missionaries.
The Chinese craftsmen who learnt from the Jesuits quickly mastered the techniques, and by the late 17th century, workshops in Canton were already busy producing large quantities of reverse glass paintings for export to Europe. These paintings not only became prized possessions of wealthy European families, but their shimmering quality and aesthetic beauty also caught the interest of the Imperial Court. According to the Jesuit missionary, Joseph Marie Amiot, Emperor Qianlong became so fond of reverse glass paintings that he summoned Cantonese artists to Beijing to produce such paintings and also commissioned his two Jesuit court painters, Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688-1766) and Jean Denis Attiret (Wang Zhicheng, 1702-1768), to paint on glass (see Joseph Marie Amiot Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les mœurs, les usages, &c. des chinois).
Born in Milan, Giuseppe Castiglione was sent to China by the Jesuit Mission in 1715 and subsequently served a total of fifty-one years as painter in the Imperial court, until his death. The three Emperors of the Golden Age were his patrons. Besides producing a great body of work himself, he also taught his Chinese counterparts the illusionistic devices of Western oil painting, such as linear perspective and chiaroscuro. Paintings by Castiglione and his students appear more three-dimensional and more realistic than any traditional Chinese painting, although, to cater to the taste of the Qianlong Emperor, who disliked strong light and shadow contrasts and thought of shadows as dirt, Castiglione softened his use of chiaroscuro, especially when it came to the rendering of faces.
Although it is a well-known fact that Castiglione was commissioned to produce reverse glass paintings, no surviving sample can be attributed to him beyond doubt, to the effect that no reverse glass painting has been included in his catalogue raisonné. The present painting is interesting due to its striking similarity to a surviving oil portrait attributed to Castiglione, possibly depicting the Fragrant Concubine of Emperor Qianlong (Rong Fei) (see Cécile Beurdeley & Michel Beurdeley: Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit painter at the court of the Chinese emperors). Both the colour and the compositional schemes are identical, suggesting that the reverse glass version was based on the oil painting. Iconographically, the shepherdess as a symbol of innocence and benevolence is a persistent theme in the history of European painting, harking back to the depiction of the Virgin Mary as the Divine Shepherdess. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it became very popular and was emblematic of the European aristocrats' longing for Arcadia to represent young ladies as shepherdesses in a bucolic landscape, a longing which may or may not have been shared by Emperor Qianlong as he commissioned Castiglione to portray his favourite concubine.
This wonderful portrait is one of 23 lots from a private Scottish residence (lots 183 to 205) collected by a Scottish businessman whilst working in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s. The collection of reverse paintings, in original hardwood or lacquered frames, show an interesting variety of subjects, some being European in taste, rather than purely Asian. The Young Shepherdess, attributed to Castiglione, was reframed in a Chippendale pattern frame whilst in Hong Kong to match the interior decoration of the family's Scottish home.