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Gu Embroidery

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Text/Iris Zhang

"To sew birds and blossoms onto petite squares of cloth, and to paint portraits on fragrant sachets, with craftsmanship so fine, setting it apart from distant realms." —From Songjiang Prefecture Chorography, Ming Dynasty

Embroidery is a revered traditional Chinese craft rooted in the country's rich history. Its poetic essence sets it apart from the male-dominated world of Chinese painting. It is a poetic expression closely tied to ancient Chinese women, a continuous and enduring verse delicately imbued with warmth. This art form encapsulates patience and embraces tranquility and serenity while embodying resilience.

In addition to renowned embroidery genres like Hunan Embroidery, Cantonese Embroidery, Sichuan Embroidery, and Suzhou Embroidery, which are celebrated for their regional influences and cultural diversity, this essay will focus on Gu Embroidery. Gu Embroidery, also known as "Lu Xiang Yuan Xiu" (露香园绣), traces its origins to the Gu family in Shanghai during the Ming Dynasty. Characterized by a distinct literati temperament, Gu Embroidery boasts high cultural and collectible value.

Gu Embroidery was established by Miao, the concubine of Gu Huihai, son of Gu Mingshi, who achieved the status of a Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examination) in the 38th year of the Jiajing reign of the Ming Dynasty in Songjiang Prefecture. It is the only embroidery style that bears a family name. The granddaughter-in-law of Gu Mingshi, Han Ximeng, excelled in the techniques of embroidery and the use of color, significantly elevating the artistic essence of this embroidery style.

Gu embroidery is often referred to as "painted embroidery" due to the fact that embroiderers meticulously replicate patterns from renowned paintings, particularly those by famous painters. Embroiderers employ ultra-fine silk threads and over ten complex stitching techniques. Additionally, Gu utilizes intermediate colors not found in traditional embroidery, allowing embroiderers to realistically depict the rich colors in natural scenes by blending medium shades to complement and layer colors. Playing with selecting and processing materials, applying stitching techniques, and coordinating embroidery colors enables their works to achieve the threefold realm of "resembling a painting, reflecting the craftsmanship of heaven, and capturing the hues of dye." This is a significant characteristic that distinguishes Gu from the typical decorative style of folk embroidery, imparting a sense of literati aesthetics while pursuing the expression of artistic connotations.

Lot 679, A Chinese folding screen with four embroidered court scenes, 16th/17th century

In our Winter 2023 Fine Chinese Art and Antiques auctions, Lot 679 stands out as a magnificent example of Gu embroidery—a set of four folding screens featuring embroidered court scenes dating back to the 16th/17th century. The subject matter is drawn from the Tang dynasty's "Yin Hua Lu," specifically the story of Fenyang King, Guo Ziyi's birthday, narrated by Zhao Lin. The scene portrays twenty-five characters of varying ages and genders, each depicted with lifelike precision, capturing subtle expressions that make them come to life.

Detailed images of Lot 679, A Chinese folding screen with four embroidered court scenes, 16th/17th century

The composition strictly adheres to the principles of literati painting, employing a simple and refined color palette that beautifully conveys the grace and sophistication of feminine aesthetics. Silk threads are expertly harnessed, utilizing techniques such as the wrapped stitch, joining stitch, rolling stitch, and diagonal stitch, among others. The key pigments in use encompass stone blue, stone green, and ochre. The attire worn by the figures begins with an initial application of the base color, followed by the intricate embroidery of textures. Facial features are embroidered before being painted, and for flowers and trees, only the outlines are emphasized, with all remaining details painted directly with a brush. As for the landscape, it is painted directly. This bold and innovative approach, seamlessly merging embroidery and painting, mutually enhances one another, bringing the characters to the forefront while vividly portraying the fluidity of the natural environment.

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