The art of Chinese reverse glass painting proved popular during the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Most of these works were executed in the port of Canton and were intended for sale to foreigners such as sailors and merchants and in particular enjoyed a thriving export trade to Europe. Glass paintings were also bought by the Chinese but generally only hung in restaurants or other public places and seldom in their homes.
The technique is believed to have originated in Italy, from where it spread throughout Europe during the fifteenth century to become a thriving folk and cottage industry. Works executed by the ‘China Trade’ were generally executed from sketches, oils or engravings; the subject matter varied greatly but often included beautiful women, portraits, landscapes, mythological or hunting scenes. Such scenes share common characteristics, notably bold colours, swiftly applied brush strokes, a certain lack of perspective and anonymity of the artist. Although the exact date of when this art first begun in China is not known, it is generally believed to have originated during the early eighteenth century, since on their arrival in the East during the mid 1700’s the Jesuits missionaries noted that the art was already being practiced. It was however not until the advent of industrial glass production there during the late Qing Dynasty that this art was practiced on a wider scale.
Reversed glass painting was a skilled art form, which involved painting the back of the glass and in reverse order to an ordinary painting. The finishing details would be applied first and had to be done accurately as this area was immediately covered by the next phase of the painting, thus when painting the eye of the present figure, the artist would have begun with her pupil, then the rest of the eye and so on in order to build up the face. The last part of the work to have been executed would have been the background. When the glass was turned over, the actual intended image was viewed from the unpainted side. Unlike stained glass, these paintings were often meant to be mounted on a wall with light shone on them, instead of light going through them.
Although it was a very exacting art, the technique offered several advantages over normal oil painting, both for the artist and consumer. As far as the painter was concerned, once the work was complete it could be placed within a wooden backing which protected the paint even when not completely dry. This in turn led to a more rapid turnover and greater financial gain. As far as the consumer was concerned, the painting was easy to care for since all that needed to be done to clean it was to gently wipe the glass without fear of damaging the paint. With the advent of photography and improved printing techniques during the mid to late nineteenth century, reverse glass painting diminished yet today there is a resurgent interest in this skilled art form.