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Exhibitions/ When the Manchus Ruled China

When the Manchus Ruled China: Painting under the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)

February 2–August 18, 2002

Exhibition Overview

The most comprehensive exhibition of Qing dynasty painting ever mounted in the West, this selection of more than sixty works focuses on painting under the brilliant reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662–1722) and Qianlong (r. 1736–95) emperors—a period when the Manchus embraced Chinese cultural traditions and the court became a leading patron in the arts. On view are major works by the three principal groups of artists working during the Qing: the traditionalists, who sought to revitalize painting through the creative reinterpretation of past models; the individualists, who practiced a deeply personal form of art that often carried a strong message of political protest; and the courtiers, the officials and professional artists that served at the Manchu court. The works are drawn primarily from the Museum's outstanding collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting, supplemented by select loans from local private collections.

This exhibition is made possible by The Dillon Fund.

Selected Highlights

While Orthodox School painters practiced a basically apolitical form of art, a very different kind of painting was developed by the many Ming officials and loyal subjects who withdrew from public service after the Manchu conquest to live in self-imposed retirement. These artists expressed their defiance and despair through images of famous recluses or desolate landscapes painted in a spare, monochromatic style. Often lacking access to important collections of old masters, they drew inspiration from the natural beauty of the local scenery. One group of Ming loyalists living in Anhui Province saw in the rugged cliffs and craggy pines of Mount Huang ("Yellow Mountain") a world free from the taint of Manchu occupation. Other loyalists remained in the city of Nanjing, which had served as the Ming dynasty's secondary capital. Because the city had been a center of Jesuit missionary activity since the late 16th century, the works of these artists reveal an interest in the effects of light and shade, perspective, atmosphere, and naturalistic description that reflect the influence of European engravings and paintings.

Two of the most outstanding loyalist artists of the early Qing period were descendants of the Ming royal house: Bada Shanren (1626–1705) and Shitao (1642–1707). Bada, lodging his feelings of vulnerability and frustration in his art, as in his Fish and Rocks and Two Eagles on display, created a deeply personal expressionist style that reflects his ambivalence about a life in hiding and his failure to acknowledge his identity as a Ming prince. Shitao, who was only two years old when the Ming dynasty fell, drew upon his love for natural scenery and his technical facility with brush and ink to create the most original landscape style of the seventeenth century, as is apparent in his Drunk in Autumn Woods, also on view.

In 1644, the crumbling Ming state was conquered by the Manchus, a non-Chinese, semi-nomadic people from northeast of the Great Wall, and the Shunzhi emperor (r. 1644–61) established military control over China. Lacking a sophisticated artistic heritage of their own, Manchu rulers initially patronized a colorful figurative style derived from Chinese religious art. However, when Kangxi ascended the throne, this style was superseded by the elite scholarly manner of a group of traditionalist artists, who sought to revitalize painting through the creative reinterpretation of past models. This traditionalist approach, first articulated by Dong Qichang (1555–1636), became the foundation of a new style under the leadership of Dong's disciple, Wang Shimin (1592–1680). Wang and his followers later became known collectively as the Orthodox School.

Wang Hui (1632–1717), a brilliant follower of the Orthodox School and the most celebrated artist of the day, was appointed by Kangxi to oversee a project commemorating the emperor's triumphal 1689 inspection tour of the south. By employing Wang, Kangxi effectively co-opted China's most hallowed artistic tradition and institutionalized it as the preeminent Qing court style. Two scrolls from the Kangxi Southern Inspection Tour are on view, including a twenty-foot section showing the arrival of his entourage at Mount Tai, the sacred mountain of the east, and a forty-four-foot-long section documenting the emperor's triumphant entry into Suzhou (the scroll was featured in the David Hockney video, A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China (or Surface is Illusion but so is Depth). Also on display is the original lacquer box and silk wrapper in which such scrolls were stored.

By 1710 most of the Ming loyalists had died and the prosperity accompanying the Kangxi emperor's successful rule was reflected in a new, more lavish art style that arose in the wealthy commercial city of Yangzhou: large-scale, richly detailed works in mineral pigments on silk, as well as highly individualistic figural and flower paintings that were less demanding of the viewer and more readily salable to a broad public than landscape paintings. This style was also adopted at court under the sponsorship of Kangxi's grandson, the Qianlong emperor.

Court patronage attained a high point under Qianlong as the empire's finest craftsmen were recruited to serve in palace workshops. While many court painters continued to work in the Orthodox School tradition, a number of European Jesuit missionaries also found favor at court, where their vivid representational style was particularly admired for commemorative portraits and documentary records of imperial achievements. Chinese court painters soon mastered the rudiments of Western linear perspective and chiaroscuro modeling, creating a new, hybrid form of painting that combined Western-style realism with traditional brushwork.

The exhibition includes outstanding works by these Qing court artists. A twenty-five-foot-long preparatory drawing by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), One Hundred Horses, is a masterpiece that is the only known work of its kind, showing how the European artist used Western techniques of sketching and rendering forms as the basis for his hybrid style. The impact of Western techniques is also reflected in an unattributed portrait of an imperial bodyguard as well as in the mammoth scrolls of Xu Yang (actire ca. 1750–76), which document segments of another southern inspection tour, this one undertaken by Kangxi's grandson, the Qianlong emperor. Unrolled, these scrolls extend fifty-four feet.