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Finishing the Coiffure

Gouache entitled 'Finishing the Coiffure', Chinese, circa 1700–1840

Gouache entitled 'Finishing the Coiffure', Chinese, circa 1700–1840

This gouache on silk work dates from c.1700-1840 during the Chinese Qing dynasty (1644–1911).

In it we get a glimpse, through a parted curtain, of the room of a wealthy lady whose hair is being dressed by her maid. On the table in front of her are cosmetic boxes, a small flower vase, and a mirror and stand. The mirror would have been of bronze, with a polished surface on one side and a small handle for holding the mirror on the other. The long piece of silk, which can be seen hanging from between the knarled wood stand and the back of the mirror, would have been attached to the handle. Many women of wealthy families in China were highly educated and could paint, write calligraphy, and compose poetry. These marks of status are indicated in the painting by the cabinet at the back of the room on which books, scrolls and related objects are displayed. The moon-shaped window looks out onto a garden where plantain or banana leaves - symbolic of scholarly activities - can be seen.

The artist of this work is unknown, however stylistically it belongs to a group of paintings that show beautiful women or ‘meiren’. The most famous of these are the ‘Twelve Beauties of Yuanmingyuan’, a series of 12 life-size paintings produced by court artists for the Yongzheng Emperor (1723–35). Although most Chinese paintings are mounted as scrolls, this example would once have been mounted as a screen within a solid framework, indicating that it too might have been one of a series of beautiful women.

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