Douglas Dillon (1909–2003), former chairman of the Metropolitan Museum's Board of Trustees, became involved with Asian art out of his respect for Asia's importance in world affairs and the need to represent its cultures at the Metropolitan in a comprehensive manner. This exhibition, comprising more than fifty masterworks of Chinese painting acquired through the generosity of Mr. Dillon and The Dillon Fund, as well as several noteworthy gifts presented in his honor or memory, highlights his lasting contribution to the field of Chinese art. Spanning more than one thousand years of Chinese painting, from the eighth to the eighteenth century, the exhibition constitutes a compelling survey of all the major schools and trends of the last four dynasties.
Born in 1909 as the son of the founder of Dillon, Read & Company, an international banking house, Mr. Dillon himself was a versatile Wall Street financier and public servant, who became Ambassador to France under President Eisenhower and Secretary of the Treasury under President Kennedy. He also served as an executive of the Metropolitan Museum for more than fifty years—including terms as President of the Museum from 1970 to 1978, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1977 to 1983.
Mr. Dillon began his involvement with Asian art because he sensed Asia's importance in world affairs as well as the need to represent its cultures at the Metropolitan in the same comprehensive manner as the holdings of Western art. In 1970, on the occasion of the Metropolitan's centennial, an informal survey of the Museum's holdings revealed that the arts of Asia in general—and of Chinese painting in particular—were among the weakest areas represented. As Chairman, he committed himself to eliminating this gap. Enlisting Dr. Wen Fong, a professor of Chinese art at Princeton University, as a consultant and later as the Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, Mr. Dillon and The Dillon Fund supported the Museum's acquisition of more than 130 works over the next three decades.
Mr. Dillon's commitment to Asian art extended far beyond acquisitions. The Dillon Fund generously supported the creation of the Douglas Dillon Galleries for Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, which opened in 1981 in tandem with The Astor Court, a Chinese Ming-style scholar's court funded by fellow trustee Brooke Russell Astor. Mr. Dillon and the Dillon Fund also endowed a departmental chairmanship in Chinese art, and a position in Chinese painting conservation, and provided funding for several important publications on the collection.
These initiatives encouraged other trustees and collectors to lend significant support as well, including a gift of nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings from Robert H. Ellsworth in 1986, a major bequest of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from John M. Crawford Jr. in 1989, and ongoing support and gifts of paintings from trustee Oscar L. Tang and his family. By 1997, the Museum's collection had expanded significantly; galleries for Chinese painting and calligraphy were entirely renovated and—with additional support from Oscar Tang and Herbert and Florence Irving—expanded, so that today the Metropolitan offers the most extensive display space for Chinese painting outside China.
Among the masterpieces of Tang (618–907) and early Song (960–1127) painting that are on display in the exhibition's first gallery are a portrait of the imperial charger Night Shining White, attributed to the legendary horse painter Han Kan (active 742–756); monumental landscapes, including Summer Mountains, attributed to Qu Ding (active ca. 1023–ca. 1056); and one of the most important extant examples of Tang standard-script calligraphy, the elegant Scripture of Spiritual Flight, attributed to Zhong Shaoqing (active ca. 713–741). Masterworks such as intimate fan paintings and album leaves as well as rare court-sponsored narrative handscrolls of the Southern Song (1127–1279) are featured in the second gallery.
Scholar-artist paintings of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in the third gallery include some of China's most memorable images using the idiom of landscape painting. The installation juxtaposes the calligraphic Twin Pines, Level Distance of about 1303 by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) with the archaistic blue-green-style Wang Xizhi Watching Geese by Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–before 1307). Major works by the late Yuan scholar-artists Ni Zan (1306–1374) and Lu Guang (ca. 1300–after 1371) are being shown with works by Chan (Zen, in Japanese) masters, who employed a similarly expressive monochromatic style.
The fourth gallery traces the continuation of both Song academic traditions and Yuan scholarly styles during the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). All the major genres–bird and flower images, old trees in a landscape, bamboo, blossoming plum, and figure painting–are represented by major works: Peacock and Hollyhocks by Bian Lu (active mid-fourteenth century), Dragon Pine by Wu Boli (active late 14th–early fifteenth century), Bamboo in Wind by Xia Chang (1388–1470), Plum in Snow by Liu Shiru (active 16th century), and The Scholar Fu Sheng Transmitting the Book of Documents by Du Jin (active ca. 1465–1509).
The development of the scholarly painting tradition during the early and middle Ming dynasty is represented in the fifth gallery by works of Wang Fu (1362–1416), Shen Zhou (1427–1509), and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559).
In the sixth and seventh galleries, outstanding examples of works by a group of early Qing artists are featured. Among them are Wang Shimin (1592–1680), Wang Jian (1598–1677), Wang Hui (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715), whose scholarly manner of painting was adopted as the officially sanctioned style of the Qing court.
The exhibition concludes with a dramatic array of Qing court-inspired paintings. At court, the calligraphic painting style of the orthodox school persisted alongside a new, highly descriptive manner of painting using Western techniques of perspective and chiaroscuro modeling introduced by Jesuit missionaries. These two contrasting styles are apparent in the monumental handscrolls entitled The Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour by Xu Yang (act. ca. 1750–after 1776). A twelve-panel screen painting by Yuan Jiang (active ca. 1680–ca. 1730), Palace of Nine Accomplishments, highlights the conspicuous demand and consumption for large-scale works among private patrons at this time.