Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine

This is Emperor Sailing, one of a series of tapestries made at the royal manufactory at Beauvais, after a designs by Guy Vernansal, Jean-Baptise Belin de Fontenay and Jean-Baptise Monnoyer.

Writes Christie's who sold this particular work in 2004 (to Chicago Art Institute, as it happens):
[The series is thought to represent] the Chinese emperors Shun Chih (reigned 1644 - 1661) and Kang Hsi (reigned from 1661 - 1721) and their Empresses. Many of the images are based on Johan Nieuhof's Legatio batavica ad magnum Tartatiae chamum sungteium, modernum sinae imperatorem of 1665, which derived from the visit of a delegation of the Dutch East India Company to China from 1655 - 1657. For the botanical details Athanasius Kircher's China Monumentis qua Sacris qua Profanis of 1667 seems to have served as inspiration. As its title 'Roi de Chine' implied, the series was meant to illustrate the Chinese Royal Court, but many influences from other Far Eastern countries are discernable. The artists were keen to incorporate as many 'documented' exotic objects as possible in these tapestries.
Further discussion here.

Go here to zoom in on the remarkable detail.

Other tapestries from the series survive: here is one at the Getty (The Empress Sailing). The connection of these tapestries with Joachim Bouvet's book Histoire de l'empereur de la Chine, presentée au roy, 1699, printed by Meyndert Uytwerf, Paris, 1699 (and reprinted in Tientsin in 1940) is not clear; but Bouvet's connection with Louis XIV is clear: he was originally dispatched by His Most Christian Majesty with books and scientific instruments to the court of Kang-hsi as an envoy; he then served there as the emperor's tutor; and eventually became Kang-hsi's emissary to France.

One could say that one great difference between Louis XIV and the fellows like Steiner and Eco was that His Majesty, being a greater man, was interested in places outside of Europe. And how could he not be: on the opposite end of the globe there was someone like him, his double, perhaps his mirror image, a king of wisdom, virtue, art and gloire.

On precisely the other side of the world there existed his equal. There was one. How extra-ordinary.


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