In 1841, King Louis Philippe I of France purchased and displayed a painting of Macao’s A-Ma Temple at the 1855 World Fair in Paris. This piece of work, which so dazzled the French king and his people, was by the French painter Auguste Borget who brought the images of China back to Europe.
The Macao Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of his work held in collaboration with the Consulate-General of France in Hong Kong and Macao and the Alliance Francaise de Macao. “Auguste Borget: A Painter-Traveller on the South China Coast” showcased over 120 sketches, watercolours, oil paintings, prints and antique books on loan from nine cultural entities from Macao, Hong Kong, France and the United Kingdom as well as seven private organisations and collectors. Over 40 pieces feature 19th-century Macao, including King Philippe’s “A-Ma Temple, Macao.”
THE TRAVELLING ARTIST FAR FROM HOME
Borget was born 28 August 1808, in Issoudun, France, to a middle-class family. Upon finishing his studies, he went to work in a bank but found it not to his liking. In 1829, he left his hometown to study art in Paris with Baron Jean Antoine Théodore Guduin, a well-known landscape painter, whom he greatly admired. At this time, he also began a long friendship with Honoré Balzac, one of the most famous French authors of the 19th century.
Following his teacher’s example, Borget pursued his art abroad, travelling to Switzerland, Venice, Rome and Naples. Everywhere he went, he took his drawing notebooks, sketching everything in sight.
On 25 October 1836, he began the greatest voyage of his life – a four-year odyssey that took him to North and South America, China, the Philippines and India – returning to France in July 1840 only on doctors’ orders.
Borget tirelessly sketched as he travelled: fishermen, farmers, street life, commerce, the scenes of everyday life all caught his eye. It was with this spirit that he came to China.
He arrived in the Far East from Peru via islands in the Pacific, weathering a terrible typhoon in the South China Sea which nearly cost his life. However, as a westerner, he did not have the right to enter the Middle Kingdom; so he spent August 1836 exploring the Chinese coast and Hong Kong. He then settled in Guangzhou, from the end of August until 20 October, where foreign businessmen were allowed to take residence.
“China lies before me, China calls me; tomorrow I will have left the impression of my footsteps on the shores of this celestial Empire,” he wrote to a friend. He knew it was to be the highlight of his global tour.
From the October 1836 until May 1837, Borget lived in Macao where he met the English painter George Chinnery. Borget’s fluent English facilitated a working friendship with Chinnery who helped him improve his technique, especially the use of oil and colours.
Borget found something of interest at every turn in Macao—every village, every street corner, every monument, festival and procession. Be it city or countryside, rich or poor, the daily life of ordinary people was ample fodder for his works.
This perspective is aptly demonstrated in “A-Ma Temple”. Rather than simply featuring the portrait of a religious building, it depicts the life of its worshippers in meticulous detail. The painting is rather like photo realism, resplendent with trees and ships in the harbour.
Always searching for images that would enrich his portfolio, Borget relished the opportunity to see the Chinese at close quarters for the first time in his life. “I followed them, going up and down as they did, but at a distance,” he wrote to a friend. Although frustrated by his inability to communicate with the locals, he nonetheless felt more at home in Macao than in Brazil and Argentina where he was repulsed by the treatment inflicted by the ‘civilised’ Europeans on native Indians and African slaves.
Other works depicting life in Macao include “Residence of the President of the British East India Company,” “Passage from Macao to Canton” and “Macao Landscape.” They, too, are accurate and realistic representations. Borget also enjoyed drawing fishermen, depicting people and vessels as one in meticulous detail, as in “Boats and Fishermen’s Dwellings near Canton.”
BRINGING MACAO BACK TO FRANCE
From Macao, Borget went on to Manila and then Calcutta. After travelling extensively in India, he fell gravely ill in late 1840, and his doctors advised him strongly to return home if he was to save his life.
He settled once again in Paris with all the souvenirs, sketches and notes he had collected during his travels and set to work, creating paintings of all the things he had seen and heard during his travels, especially in China.
Borget achieved great success when King Louis Philippe I bought “A-Ma Temple” at a major 1841 exhibition at the Paris Salon. This 25-metre-wide by 15-metre-tall masterpiece was then prominently displayed at the 1855 World Fair in Paris.
In November 1842, a Parisian publisher released “China and the Chinese,” an album of 32 lithographs complete with 26 pages of descriptions with paintings of Borget. The French edition was followed by an English version a month later, establishing Borget as an ‘Orientalist’ painter of China.
In 1845, Borget produced “Pieces from a Voyage around the World” and “The China Open.” His works became very popular, and his designs were often reproduced on porcelain. He continued to exhibit his work regularly at the Paris Salon through 1859.
Borget’s meticulous drawings, paintings and books depicting the life, customs and landscapes of Macao and China helped spread knowledge of China’s arts, culture and manners at a time when the French were curious about the Far East and all things Chinese. His work was therefore widely covered by the media at the time.
In 1844, a journalist for the arts magazine L’Artiste wrote: “You can today have a very enjoyable visit to China in the studio of Mr. Auguste Borget. Already, this young artist in ‘China and the Chinese’ has revealed the customs, arts and monuments of the Chinese, as a faithful painter and vivid writer… in his studio, you can learn in great detail of this most unique corner of the earth.”
AN ARTIST AND A HUMANIST
In 1851, Borget left Paris for Bourges in his native region in central France. There he became a devout Catholic as a member of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul for the last two decades of his life. Devoting himself to charity, he worked to relieve the poor and earned a modest living by giving drawing lessons at local institutions. He continued to paint and exhibit at major exhibitions in Paris, but the centre of his life had shifted.
Borget died 25 October 1877, after a long illness. He was surrounded by his works and souvenirs of his voyage around the world and is buried in the family cemetery in Issoudun.
He is remembered, then and now, as both an artist and humanist. Eugène de Montlaur, a critic of the time and close friend described him in the journal L’Art en Province: “A text as only M. Borget knows how to write, in a pure and colourful style, accompanied by admirable plates of exquisite finesse; so we continue, untiring, with a spiritual travelling companion, from the banks of the Hudson to the Philippines, passing through the Sandwich Islands, crossing Canton, on a market day, travelling along Clives Road, in Calcutta, and finally coming to sit in the shade next to the foundations in Arequipa (Peru).”
TEXT Ou Nian-Le
PHOTO Courtesy of Macao Museum of Art
(Issue N.36, September 2016)