Chinese Export (late eighteenth-century), Lychee

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Chinese Export (late eighteenth-century)
Lychee
Gouache on paper
Paper size: 18 1/4 x 14 in
Frame size: 27 1/4 x 23 3/8 in
1790-1810
Provenance: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Verner Reed, Greenwich, CT; and thence by descent to Mr. Samuel P. Reed, New York, NY.

Lychee is infamous for its ephemerality; trees can live thousands of years, but their seeds only live for a few days. That meant the seeds could not travel far and remain viable. Thus, the remained a very coveted plant throughout the early 19th century when greenhouses became more widely utilized.  Lychee appeared in England and France first, and from there was taken to the East Indies. This exotic plant arrived in Florida in 1883, and California in 1897.

The Lychee was greatly imbued into Chinese symbolism and severed as an art motif in paintings as well as on porcelain and ceramics as well as in various arts and crafts. The dried Lychee is an important item for the marriage bed as, like the chestnut, it is a symbol of the birth of a son.

CHINESE EXPORT (LATE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY)

This is an outstanding collection of Chinese export watercolors, illustrating lush and exotic fruits found throughout the Asian continent. One of the leading experts on the arts of the China Trade, Carl L. Crossman, has confirmed their authenticity and describes them as “wonderful examples” of early Chinese watercolors made for export. The identification of each fruit has been confirmed by Dorrie Rosen and Marie Long of the New York Botanical Garden.

The market for Chinese export watercolors grew out of the trade-in porcelain to the West. In Britain, botanical interest in the exotic botany of the world was spurred on by Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the president of the Royal Society. However, the botanical treasures of China must have been known in England well before 1750, since Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) owned a fine album of such drawings, now in the British Museum. There was a long tradition of botanical writing and illustration in China, dating back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), and the desire of Western scholars to obtain accurate depictions of unfamiliar Asian flora and fauna was easily satisfied by Chinese natural history watercolorists. The tradition of botanical painting was so prevalent throughout China that western traders were not solely reliant upon the workshops at Canton, the main trading city-port, and also obtained watercolors from other parts of the Chinese community in southeast Asia

These particularly fine examples date from the late eighteenth century and display an acute sense of scientific accuracy balanced by a strong aesthetic sensibility. It is probable that they were originally commissioned by a Western scholar or amateur gentleman-botanist curious as to the appearance of the exotic fruits of Asia.  As is typical of Chinese export watercolors of this period, each work shows the fruit with its complete vegetation and also contains a cross-section illustration depicting the interior flesh of the fruit. Each of these minutely detailed, exquisitely colored, and fully animated renderings seem ready to burst out of its compositional boundaries. Indeed, from the incredibly life-like rendering of a pineapple’s prickly scales to the emotionally charged depictions of seeds liberating themselves from their shells, it is clear that the watercolorist possessed an incredibly heightened scientific and decorative sense.