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Exhibitions/ Defining Yongle

Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China

April 1–July 10, 2005

Exhibition Overview

The Yongle emperor (r. 1403–1425) was the most powerful, effective, and extravagant ruler of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). His reign was punctuated by vigorous military campaigns and unprecedented maritime expeditions. A son of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty, he seized the throne from his nephew and moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Yongle's strong faith in Tibetan Buddhism, and the means of production at his disposal, determined both the repertory and the style of the superb paintings, sculptures, lacquers, metalwork, ceramics, textiles, and ivories produced in the imperial workshops during his reign. This exhibition defines a crucial moment in the development of imperial Chinese art and its relationship to later artistic traditions. On view are sculptures, lacquers, metalwork, ceramics, textiles, and ivories. Important recent acquisitions—such as a gilt-brass sculpture, Manjushri, depicting the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and a rare lacquer sutra box with incised gold decoration (qiangjin)—are presented along with twelve works (embroidered silks and works in cloisonné, ivory, and lacquer) acquired since 1990. Fifteen loans, many from New York collections, supplement the thirty-three objects drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's permanent collection.

The Yongle emperor has been revered—and at times reviled—as one of the most powerful and effective rulers of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). His reign was punctuated by vigorous military campaigns that pushed the Mongols back into Mongolia and that expanded his empire south into Vietnam, as well as by six historically unprecedented maritime expeditions, one of which reached the east coast of Africa. The emperor moved the capital from the south to the north and established the Forbidden City in Beijing (the northern capital), incorporating the complex built earlier by Khubilai Khan (1215–1294). He created a new military noble class and shaped the intellectual outlook of the intelligentsia by commissioning influential compendia of classic texts.

Paintings, sculptures, textiles, ceramics, and other media produced during the Yongle emperor's reign were defined by an imperial aesthetic that influenced Chinese taste until the end of the eighteenth century. Diplomatic and economic relations between China and Islamic centers such as the Mamluk Empire (1260–1526), based in Egypt and Syria, are reflected in the introduction of new shapes and motifs in porcelain as well as the development of new techniques. The emperor's interest in Tibetan Buddhism can be observed through the style and imagery of sculptures, ritual implements, and textiles produced at the court for use in religious ceremonies, and as gifts to visiting clerics. These gifts, as well as Chinese paintings and ceramics, played an important role in the development of Tibetan art during the second half of the fifteenth century.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation.