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Making Sense of the Copy in Canton

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 12, 2015 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Image Credit/Caption: Unknown artist, A Glass Painter, c. 1790, Victoria and Albert Museum
Painting of person with Chinese queue hairstyle sitting at a desk painting

This lecture offers a look at the early history of things “made in China.” In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, artisans in Canton (then China’s sole port of foreign trade) became specialists in producing Western artifacts for export. Their copies, of everything from silver spoons to oil paintings, ranged from legally troubling counterfeits to creative variations injected with the flair of exoticism. This talk will focus on a particular medium of reproduction: reverse painting on glass—framed pictures painted in oil on the back of sheets of glass but viewed from front or unpainted side. Despite their fragility, glass painting developed into a highly specialized export art in Canton, where it was favored for making painted copies of foreign prints brought to China for replication. By breaking down the layers of technical virtuosity and cultural exchange involved in making glass paintings, this talk will consider how artisanal strategies of copying in reverse may have been metonymic of the China Trade’s creative labors. Indeed, this unusual craft may have offered Chinese artisans and their Western patrons a sophisticated means of making sense of the practices of replication and imitation driving their globalizing, mercantile world.