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The Printed Image in China, 8th–21st Century

May 5–July 29, 2012

Popularizing Elite Culture

During the long Ming period (1368–1644), political stability and economic prosperity contributed to an increase in wealth, literacy, and social mobility among China's burgeoning urban population. Cities such as Nanjing and Suzhou became centers for the educated elite and wealthy merchants who fostered an avid consumption of culturally sophisticated goods, including finely printed material.

Most notable was the early seventeenth-century perfection of high-quality printing in graded colors. Although color printing had existed for centuries, the use of multiple blocks to create layered tonalities, often without the use of ink outlines, enabled printers to create images that closely resembled paintings executed with a brush. Not only were classical painting compositions translated into the print medium, but contemporary artists also contributed painterly designs that served as both inspiring models and actual painting manuals. This quest for technical refinement had a significant impact on the development of color printing in Japan.

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