“Our Sister Painter”: Laura Biondecci (1699-1752) in Qing China

Scheuerman ElizabethThe Qing Dynasty was a period of great achievement in the arts and sciences. During this time, the Jesuits gained access to the emperor and the Chinese people, where they planned to spread the Gospel and convert the population. Though these missionaries faced many struggles in their goal, they were aided in the most unlikely of ways – by the Jesuits who came to paint for the emperor. Until recently, it was thought that only men undertook this mission; however new findings over the past few decades show that at least one very important woman joined them.

Laura Biondecci was born into an affluent Italian family in 1699 in the city of Rome. Her father was a wealthy Italian merchant, and though her parents tried to have more children, she was their only child to survive to adulthood. As an only child, Laura was much beloved of both her parents, and thus spent most of her time alongside her mother, the daughter of a famous artist of the time period. At a young age, Laura’s intelligence shone, and her parents hired a Jesuit tutor for her, since they wanted their daughter to have the best education.

Laura was an independent and observant child, and her mother soon discovered her artistic talent. When she was four years old, Laura would often ask her mother to use her drawing supplies, especially while her mother was using them in her leisure time. Eventually, Laura was allowed to use them, and her mother soon found that Laura was able to draw very, very well. After telling her husband, the parents decided to send Laura to a Jesuit school where she could cultivate both her mind and artistic talents, and assumed that she would probably later become a nun. She began attending the school at the age of five in 1704, where she learned Latin along with artistic skills.

Soon after turning seven in 1706, Laura’s world quickly changed – both of her parents fell ill and died, leaving Laura alone. Her father’s will stated that Laura was to inherit his wealth while the rest of his business was to go to his partner; in addition, she was to continue her education. Laura, newly wealthy, was sent to live with her father’s sister in Florence. Her aunt found her a place at a studio where several Jesuits – including the painter Giuseppe Castiglione – were training, in addition to registering her at the local Jesuit school.

In 1710, the Jesuits requested for artists to be sent to China. Though not initially considered for the mission, Laura wanted to go to China for several reasons. In the geography lessons she received, she was enthralled with the exotic tales presented to her. (Of course, not all of them proved to be true.) Another reason was her closeness to Giuseppe Castiglione. Though he was about 11 years older than her, the two soon formed a close sibling-like relationship after their meeting in the Bottega degli Stampatori studio, where they both were specifically trained to paint religious subjects. Castiglione and the Jesuits realized that he could use his painting to earn the favor of the Chinese emperor and thereby advance the spread of Christ’s message – which led to his decision to embark on the voyage, despite the Rites Controversy that had happened four years before in 1706. Castiglione’s decision meant that he would be excommunicated from the Church, but he deemed the journey worth it; if the missionaries could sway the emperor’s perception of Christianity, then perhaps the Vatican would reverse their decision, in addition to gaining new converts.

Laura’s aunt was initially against her going to China, but after discussing the matter with Castiglione and other Jesuits, she conceded, and the missionaries began their journey. They departed and sailed to Portugal, where Castiglione and Laura stayed for four years working on artistically furnishing a Lisbon church with their art. It was here that Laura completed her basic training as an apprentice.

The company finally left Portugal in 1714, and began their voyage to China. They traveled along the coast of Africa, at times stopping ashore to re-stock their supplies. While on the voyage, Laura began to keep a diary of her experiences written in Italian.[1] She continued this diary up until her death, which is how we have come to know so much about her life. Her writing reveals that she began to learn how to speak Chinese while on the voyage, both from one of the Jesuits and several Chinese sailors who joined them after the ship had rounded the tip of Africa.

The journey took a year to complete. They finally docked in the port of Macao, where the new missionaries were met by several Portuguese Jesuits who taught them the manners and fashion of the country so that they would better be able to become ambassadors in the name of Christ. From there, the envoy traveled to Canton (present-day Guangzhou) and made its way to Beijing over water and by land.

Even though Laura was able to speak the language upon her arrival in China, she still faced challenges adapting. Previously educated alongside other children, Laura was now alone, considered an adult, and without European peers. Since she was a woman who would only be making paintings, the Jesuits did not think it was necessary for her to learn how to read Chinese; thus she never studied the Four Classics or other works that the women she later would associate with had.

Soon after Laura, Castiglione, and their companions arrived in Beijing, the men were summoned to an audience with the Kangxi emperor, where they kowtowed to him and pledged their allegiance. Kangxi was generally in favor of the missionaries. He liked the Jesuits, despite his dislike of Christianity, as they were skilled in art, music, and science; he had enjoyed these subjects ever since he had studied these “and other topics with Jesuit tutors…as a boy.”[2] Laura was not given the same honor as her fellows, due to her being female, and instead was given an audience with Empress Xiaogongren. After their introduction at court, the missionaries settled into the house where all the Jesuits lived – a Portuguese mission house which was connected to one of the three churches in Beijing.

The Kangxi emperor was mostly interested in the Jesuits for their “underst[anding of] real-world applications” of science and technology.[3] He was extremely interested in ways to make China stronger. One historian writes how he “was writing down…orthodox opinions in the very years in which his father was seeking to perfect his autocracy…[and] ministers were expected to…not oppose the emperor’s wishes.”[4] The Kangxi emperor wished to make his empire the best in history, to restore it to glory – and by doing so, he managed to produce the “kind of internal peace and competent government it had only rarely enjoyed in the previous four hundred years.”[5]

Three other European painters already worked at court, and Castiglione soon joined them. (Laura was not officially employed at the palace in the service of the emperor since she was a woman, and which is why the Qing court’s meticulous records do not show her presence. Women were not officially employed as Qing court artisans until the early 20th century.[6]) In her education at the Bottega degli Stampatori studio, Laura had been trained in the contemporary European art theory of the Baroque period, which caused some problems for her upon her arrival in China. Both she and her future mentor, Giuseppe Castiglione, had to adapt to the immensely different ideal style in Qing Chinese painting. As a pupil painting in the Baroque style, Laura had learned concepts of shading, lighting, and dimensionality that were drastically different from the Chinese style she now had to learn. The Chinese were more in favor of even lighting and little shadow, along with more two-dimensional compositions. In Europe, Laura had shown much promise as a history painter, but once she arrived in China she had to abandon that style; court artists had to be able to skillfully render pieces in multiple forms of media depending on the emperor’s desires, which meant that she had to learn how to paint on silk, paper, porcelain, and glass.[7]  Under the tutelage of Castiglione, who was a more skilled painter, she gradually adjusted to the different demands of the Chinese.

Laura and the missionaries led fairly calm lives at court for the first few years after their arrival. Though Laura never spoke to the emperor, Castiglione and other artists would frequently be given audience with Kangxi. In addition to working at the court, the emperor would occasionally grant the European court painters leave to paint for other high-ranking families.

However, hard times struck the Jesuits in 1723. The Kangxi emperor had died in the final days of December 1722, and his son and chosen heir – the Yongzheng emperor – came to power in the beginning of 1723. Some of the Jesuits attended Kangxi’s funeral, and at first were not too troubled; but soon after taking power Yongzheng moved against several of his brothers, whom he believed were conspiring against him. Normally this sort of court intrigue would not have involved the Jesuits, but several of the emperor’s brothers had converted to Christianity. The missionaries realized they were in a precarious position after one of their members, the Portuguese priest João Moura, went to the emperor to explain the situation. Instead of listening to him, Yongzheng first imprisoned Moura and then later killed him, because he was suspected of conspiring with the emperor’s brothers. The emperor then confined all the Jesuit missionaries to house arrest, which was very frightening for all the Europeans.

During this uneasy time, Laura began several of her most important paintings. Since they were not allowed to work outside of their home and churches, Castiglione and Laura started working on art pieces in two of the Beijing churches. Castiglione worked in the French Church, while Laura worked in the Southern Church, partially due to the fact that the latter church had a women’s annex.[8] Her initial job was to create a panel for the front of the altar, but she soon began working on another piece after meeting a certain member of the congregation.

One of Laura’s most significant works is her first portrait of Guo Feiyan.[9] Thought to be a work created by Castiglione until recently (like several of her other paintings), Laura began to plan the painting soon after meeting Guo, whose “beauty and tranquil nature” deeply struck her.[10] In her diary, where she often wrote about her projects, Laura wrote an entry soon after making Guo’s acquaintance at mass:

“She has a very elegant way about her, both in her Bearing and Peaceful expression. I should like to paint a Portrait of her, if she and her husband agree. Her Countenance would be a glad change from the Monotony of court. There is also the possibility of the Madonna…”

Not only did Laura paint Guo’s portrait (which shows several similarities to her own self-portrait), but Guo was also the model for the Southern Church’s Madonna alterpiece.[11] Guo became pregnant with her first child soon after she first met Laura, and after the birth of her son, Laura proposed her desire to paint Guo and her child as the Madonna and Christ Child to her and her husband; the couple agreed. Over the next month, Laura painted the portrait in the women’s annex at an almost feverish pace. In her journal, Laura relates how she felt called to “bring a symbol of the Mother of God to these faithful people abandoned by the Pope.” She evidently did so very well, for she later records the praise-filled reception of the alter-piece by the congregation. Art historians believe this painting to be the first Chinese Madonna ever painted; it is quite a pity that the painting was destroyed and that we only have vague descriptions of the portrait to look on.

The Jesuits eventually were freed from their house arrest by Yongzheng, who died less than 15 years later in 1735. The Qianlong emperor ascended to the throne that same year, and it soon became clear that he was to become a great patron of the arts, and that Castiglione was to become a favorite of the new emperor. In 1738, Castiglione and Laura – along with a French Jesuit priest named Jean-Dennis Attiret – began sharing a studio in the court. Castiglione and Attiret – along with seven other European and five Chinese Jesuit painters – were considered vital to the new emperor, and thus followed the court to and from “Chengde…the summer retreat for the emperor and [his] entourage.”[12] Laura would often stay behind, since she was not considered as important. However, all three painters soon discovered that they would need to broaden their styles even more under this new emperor. As one historian writes, “There was no question, for the Europeans living at court, of specializing in a ‘genre.’”[13] They were expected to be able to paint on all sorts of different surfaces – from porcelain, to silk, to paper, to glass – and in different styles – such as landscapes, portraits, and still-lives. Laura soon proved to be especially good at painting on eggshell porcelain, which was soon seen as incredibly desirable by Europeans.[14] Since her style was very similar to Castiglione’s, for several hundred years art historians believed her porcelain pieces to be the work of her mentor.[15]

Laura continued with these various styles of artwork over the next decade of her life, both in the employ of the Qianlong Emperor and other patrons. However, at the end of 1751, Laura fell gravely ill. Historians are still unsure of the cause of her illness, since she wrote very little during this time, only documenting important events in the missionaries’ household, but we do know that she had respiratory problems along with a recurring fever and headache.

Several months later, Laura died at the age of 53 in the year 1752. With her death, the intimate record of a European female artist ended; her journals were taken by Castiglione and placed in the Southern Church library, alongside the books of the community she worshiped alongside. According to Attiret’s diary, Laura’s funeral was much less extravagant than Castiglione’s would be several years later. However, her funeral (like his) was also a conflation of Western and Eastern ritual. Attiret recorded that

“We [the Jesuits] all mourned greatly at her passing. Through her life Laura had been much closer than either Shining [Giuseppe] or myself to the congregation of the Southern Church, so we thought it would be only right to arrange her funeral there. Father _____ said mass, and we lead a procession to the Christian plot. Our Chinese brothers and sisters joined us; we all cried out for the loss, some staining their white garments with tears. Mistress Guo and her family were particularly upset by the loss of their good Companion and Auntie. I could not help being so strongly affected by the loss of our Sister; she will be missed by all who knew her.

Laura was laid to rest in a modest burial, near the graves of several other Jesuits who had come before her.

Thanks to modern scholarship, we now know much more about this singular woman who journeyed with the Society of Jesus to the other side of the world. Through our study of her writing and artwork – as well as through the endeavor to discover more of her work – we are better able to get a glimpse not only into her life, but into the life of those who lived around her during this incredibly influential and productive period of time in Chinese history.


[1] Laura Biondecci’s diaries were preserved in the library of the Southern Church in Beijing before being discovered in an archive in the late 1980s.

[2] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. 2nd edition. Page 396.

[3] Hansen, page 397.

[4] Willis, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print. Page 235.

[5] Willis, page 233.

[6] Clunas, Craig. Art in China. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print. Page 73.

[7] At this point in history, the Hierarchy of Genres had already been established. The Hierarchy ranked paintings’ style according to the perceived technicality and artistry needed to skillfully render a painting, as well as their importance.

(See also “Genres.” Genres. The Tate, n.d. 07 Dec. 2015. Web. <http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/g/genres>

[8] The church had a women’s annex because women at the time were not allowed to go to the same temple areas as men were. This concept remained the same for Chinese converts to Christianity, so the Jesuit churches had to make accommodations for Chinese women in order to convince them to convert and worship. (See also Beurdeley, Cécile and Michel. Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit Painter at the Court of the Chinese Emperors. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971. Print.)

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[10] Laura Biondecci wrote more about Guo Feiyan in her diary than any other Chinese person she encountered in the 37 years she spent in China. Recent scholarship has brought forth the theory that Biondecci and Guo could have had a romantic relationship. Despite European women having close romantic friendships with other women, new research on Biondecci’s writing seems to suggest that she could have had stronger emotions than friendship towards Guo. Based on the diary, it is evident that Guo returned Biondecci’s affections, whether platonic or romantic. They maintained a close relationship until Biondecci’s death.

[11] The church’s Madonna was destroyed in a fire that consumed the women’s annex and part of the main chapel in 1798. No known copy survives.

[12] Hansen, page 401. Though it was called a “summer residence,” the emperor often would live at this palace for ten months out of the year. (See also Beurdeley and Ho, Chuimei and Bennet Bronson. Splendors of China’s Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong. The Field Museum: London, 2004. Print.)

[13] Beurdely, page 45.

[14] For more on eggshell porcelain’s influence on Europe, see: Sloboda, Stacey. “Picturing China: William Alexander and the visual language of Chinoiserie.” The British Art Journal 9.2 (2008) : 28-36. Web.

[15] For more information about the artwork created during the Qianlong era, please see Ho and  Mason, Charles Q. Spinach Green & Mutton-fat White: Chinese Jades of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). University of Florida: Gainsville, 2006.

Thumbnail: Elizabeth ScheuermanELIZABETH SCHEUERMAN is a History, English, and Art History major at the University of Rochester. She works at UR’s Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, and hopes to pursue a career in Museum Studies. In her free time, Elizabeth enjoys foreign films and reading. More by Elizabeth