Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China's Age of Brilliance

January 23–September 13, 2009

The Late Ming: An Expanding Literati Culture

Throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, political weakness at court and rapid economic and commercial expansion in the south brought social change and artistic innovation to late Ming China. A highly literate artistic community produced works to meet the demands of wealthy officials and upwardly mobile merchants, shaping consumer taste and fostering the rise of regional cultural centers. One of the most influential artists of the day was Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who argued for a creative engagement with past artistic styles as a way to achieve self-transformation. In his Shaded Dwellings among Streams and Mountains, Dong rejects representational goals; instead, he exploits the expressive qualities of dynamic brushwork, compositional design, and tonal variations of ink. Chen Hongshou's Drunken Scholar embodies a very different response to the disintegrating social order. Depicting himself in the conventional guise of the dejected scholar who seeks solace in drink, Chen's accompanying inscription bemoans the territory recently lost to Manchu incursions and expresses his fear that roving outlaw bands might steal his crops. But there is still time to get drunk, he writes, and he invites his friend Ping, to whom the painting is dedicated, to join him.