Houqua (1769-1843) became the most powerful - and wealthy - of the Chinese merchants who made up the Co-Hong in Canton. D.S. Howard writes (New York and the China Trade, New York, 1984) that Houqua 'developed a reputation of almost legendary proportions (by) his retirement in 1834, (when his) wealth was estimated at $26 million'. Forbes, Kernan & Wilkins (Chinese Export Silver 1785 To 1885, Milton, MA, 1975, p.29) note that "the style of life of the wealthiest Hong merchants, such as...Houqua, involved a degree of luxury...scarcely imagined except in the greatest houses of England and the Continent." Many journals of China traders record the lavish entertaining and generous gifts of Houqua, who was apparently as well-liked as he was respected for his business acumen.
Portraits of Houqua became treasured acquisitions for the leading Western merchants of the 1830's, and in Western collections became almost iconic images of the China trade. Lamqua (b. 1801) was the portrait artist of choice. Called by Patrick Conner (Lamqua, Western and Chinese Painter, Arts of Asia, March-April 1999) "an artist of very considerable talents (and) morover the best-documented of all the Chinese export artists", Lamqua was the "Chinese follower of (and rival to) the English expatriate artist George Chinnery."
Chinnery's famous portrait of Houqua, a very similar composition and size to the present lot, is in the collection of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. A very similar portrait of Houqua by Lamqua is in the collection of the National Gallery, Dublin (for both see Patrick Conner, ibid). Another Lamqua portrait of Houqua, a half-length of smaller size, is in a Hong Kong collection (Patrick Conner, The China Coast Collection of Tuyet Nguyet and Stephen Markbreiter, Arts of Asia, March-April 1996). C.L. Crossman, The China Trade, chapter 3, discusses the life and work of Lamqua, documenting several Lamqua portraits of Houqua that were brought back to America in the 1830's and 40's, and illustrates a half-length portrait given by Houqua to Robert Bennet Forbes on his departure from Canton in 1840.