Artist to Know: Giuseppe Castiglione

Liz Catalano
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Jesuit Painter of the Chinese Court Featured in Upcoming Auction

An Italian missionary-turned-Chinese court painter, Giuseppe Castiglione spent over 50 years working with three different emperors in the Chinese palace. Seven of Castiglione’s paintings are coming to auction on April 18, 2020. Offered by Los Angeles-based auction house Pauling’s, these paintings present an uncommon opportunity to explore the artist’s work. Learn more about Castiglione’s life and legacy before the event. 

Portrait of Lady Hoja by Giuseppe Castiglione, image from Art History Project.
Portrait of Lady Hoja by Giuseppe Castiglione, image from Art History Project.

Born in 1688, Castiglione entered the Jesuit religious order at the age of 19. Noting his artistic ability, the order sent him to the Chinese imperial court in Beijing a few years later. He soon assumed the name Láng Shíning (郎世寧, Peace of the World) and began to produce paintings for Emperor Kangxi. Castiglione’s presence in the court was an important development for both cross-cultural art and religious tolerance. 

According to the Executive Intelligence Review, “Castiglione believed in uniting and transforming both Chinese and European cultures through a pursuit of beauty and excellence in all domains of science, the arts, and engineering.” 

Castiglione completed a greater number of paintings for Kangxi’s son, Emperor Yongzheng. He created many studies of landscapes, animals, and flowers during this period, which are his earliest surviving works. Today, the South China Morning Post estimates that between 100 and 200 pieces of art from Castiglione remain. Many of these are housed in Beijing museums and private collections. 

However, it was during the reign of Emperor Qianlong that Castiglione completed the majority of his work. He made numerous portraits of the emperor, empress, and various consorts. To date, a depiction of Qianlong’s favored Consort Chunhui holds the highest auction record for a Chinese imperial tailoring portrait. It was sold in a 2015 Sotheby’s sale for HKD 137.4 million (USD 17.7 million).

A Large Imperial Portrait of Consort Chunhui by Giuseppe Castiglione, image from Sotheby’s.
A Large Imperial Portrait of Consort Chunhui by Giuseppe Castiglione, image from Sotheby’s.

Historically, Castiglione’s paintings have piqued bidders’ interest when coming to auction. Many of his paintings remain in the possession of Chinese and Taiwanese museums due to his artistic significance. Paragon International president Lu Qiulian noted that Chinese collectors are especially interested in his work. The Hong Kong auction house expected a horse painting by Castiglione to fetch HKD 100 million (USD 12.9 million) in 2016. However, it is not publicly known if this estimate was reached. 

“The painter is very famous for being the first European court painter for the emperor,” Lu continued, “pioneering a style blending Chinese and Western aesthetics and techniques.”

Recent years have shown increased interest in the limited number of Castiglione works. A piece titled Hundred Horses was sold at Sotheby’s for USD 100,000 in 2016 and another work sold for HKD 1 million later that year. The upcoming Pauling’s sale includes estimates for Castiglione’s paintings ranging from USD 1,200 to $12,200. 

Castiglione is particularly admired for his union of Eastern and Western techniques. Adapting perspective, chiaroscuro (light and shadow), and realism to Chinese tastes, many of Castiglione’s pieces offer a window into the artistic preferences of the emperors. Qianlong admired the painter’s style and used Castiglione’s connection to the Jesuit order to promote tolerance and peace within his kingdom. 

Figure on Horse Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione, image from Pauling’s.
Figure on Horse Painting by Giuseppe Castiglione, image from Pauling’s.

When Castiglione died in 1766, he was buried with honor in Beijing. The Emperor personally wrote his obituary and mourned him as a friend. Emperor Qianlong later reflected on Castiglione’s style and ability: “In portraiture Shi’ning is masterful. He painted me during my younger days; the white-headed one who enters the room today does not recognize who this is.”

The legacy of this Chinese court painter continues today and is supported by a growing number of collectors. View Castiglione’s paintings in further detail by browsing the catalog for the upcoming Pauling’s sale.