THEY were the ladies-who-lunch of another era - delicate, fair, fine-boned and often found relaxing in the most elegant of settings. An exhibition now on at the Historical Pictures Gallery of the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui is simply called Leisure Pursuits, and focuses on the work of Chinese and European artists who painted portraits of Qing Dynasty women doing what they did best: taking tea, reading, giving instructions to servant girls. Of even more interest are the disparities between how Chinese artists viewed their subjects, compared with European painters: of the 23 paintings on display, some were evidently the result of the artists' imagination, with the women looking anything but Chinese and dressed in unlikely outfits. Stoney Yeung Lai-chung, an assistant curator of the museum's Historical Pictures Section, said it was easy to tell the nationality of the artist by their approach to the subject. 'They [the women] wouldn't be so open,' said Ms Yeung, of a painting titled Dame Chinoise, drawn by an artist named Deveria with lithographing by Lemercier, both French. 'If this was done by a Chinese artist, the subject would appear more quiet and reserved.' The ensemble worn by the woman in Dame Chinoise raises further doubts as to whether the artist simply created her in his mind: her shoes look Indo-Arabic, she is wearing silk pants gathered tightly at the ankles and a billowing skirt with passementerie details, hardly typical of the era and country. 'European artists would not have much opportunity to paint Chinese women,' said Ms Yeung. The exhibition, which runs until the end of the year, comprises paintings sourced from round the world, with several donated by the Hotung family. Among them are authentic examples of how 18th- and 19th-century women in China would have lived and looked: beneath the flowing ornamented robes are tiny stubs of bound feet, and most paintings are set at home or in a garden, indicating the restricted lives the women of that era lived. Some are lustrous, in deep, rich oil colours on canvas, while others are watery drawings using ink or gouache on paper. But even Chinese artists may have taken certain creative liberties. Famous Guangzhou-based artist Tingqua's The Empress Of China at first looks like a beaming, grand portrait of nobility. But on closer inspection her fingers are disproportionately long. And, according to Ms Yeung, the dragons embroidered on her robe only have four claws, when in Manchu mythology, dragon motifs featured five claws. 'Many of these artists would add their own impressions,' said Ms Yeung, of a Chinnery-style painting by Scottish artist Thomas Watson, featuring a Tanka girl done in ink on paper. Certainly, many artists of the day appeared to have been influenced by George Chinnery; an oil canvas, Portrait Of A Chinese Lady Holding A Fan, by an unknown artist, has heavy red drapes hanging in the background, a Chinnery trademark. Western artists also included a flower in the hand of many of their subjects. Uncle-and-nephew team, Thomas and William Daniell, completed a painting showing a Chinese courtesan in a garden with a maid in the background. The servant also has bound feet, which Ms Yeung said was unlikely given that it was primarily the upper classes that had to suffer the agony of having their feet bound. One of the prettiest examples of this genre of art is a series of paintings featuring female musicians, each one with a different instrument: the flute-like di, or the suona, which resembles a trumpet. All done circa 1850, they feature delicate shading and clean lines. Other pastimes portrayed include a woman languidly dipping into a tin, possibly containing opium, or reclining in a darkened room with a book. The French artist Alexandre-Marie Colin in 1934 painted an elegant woman holding a child close to her. Ms Yeung pointed out that mothers of that era would not have embraced their offspring that warmly. A heavily draped French curtain in the background and an oddly displayed Ming vase indicate the painting was done by someone unfamiliar with traditional Qing Dynasty interiors. 'When we had to restore some of the paintings, we noticed that the artists did the faces by first applying a layer of white paint before using coloured paints on top,' said Ms Yeung. 'This would give the fair, porcelain complexion typical of women of that time.' The more lively portraits feature Chinese minorities, including one from Qiongzhou district, where the subjects are barefoot and appear natural and unposed in beaded and embroidered skirts and rustic yet colourful clothes.