Press release

Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection

in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
January 30-August 19, 2001
Douglas Dillon Galleries, C. C. Wang Family Gallery,
Frances Young Tang Gallery, north wing, second floor

More than 90 Chinese paintings amassed by Robert H. Ellsworth will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, starting January 30. Drawn from the nearly 500 pieces in the Museum's collection, Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art will focus on Chinese painting created during the period of clashing social visions and dramatic political change that marked China's entry into the modern world. In the arts, it is a time when the tensions between tradition and innovation, native and foreign styles reached an unprecedented level of intensity.

The exhibition is made possible by The Dillon Fund.

Chinese culture underwent profound changes in response to the social, political, and economic upheavals that accompanied the collapse of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the rise of the modern Chinese nation-state. The Ellsworth Collection traces one strand of this history: the art of painting in ink and mineral or water-soluble pigments on paper or silk in such traditional formats as the hanging scroll, handscroll, folding fan, and album. Through most of the 19th century this strand of pictorial art constituted the only form of painting recognized in China as high art. But the growing impact of foreign cultures led to the rise of a new term, "national painting" (guohua), to distinguish this form of picture making from "Western-style painting" (yanghua). The Ellsworth Collection does not include works made using Western media – drawings in charcoal or pencil, woodblock or lithographic prints, or oil paintings. Nevertheless, the paintings featured here vividly reflect both the clash and confluence of foreign ideas with indigenous traditions that occurred during this tumultuous era.

The Ellsworth Collection encompasses nearly all of the traditional masters working during this period, including major examples by the Shanghai School masters Wu Changshi (1844-1927) and Wang Zhen (1867-1938), the Western-influenced reformer Xu Beihong (1895-1953), and the advocates of a new traditionalism: Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) and Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983). Of particular note is the large concentration of works by Qi Baishi (1864-1957), one of the best-known Chinese painters of all time.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition opens with two galleries devoted to the leading artists working in Shanghai from the 1860s to the 1930s, including Zhao Zhiqian (1829-1884), Xugu (1823-1896), Ren Yi (Ren Bonian, 1840-1895), Wu Changshi (1844-1927), and Wang Zhen (1867-1938). A group of artists who advocated the reform of Chinese art through the adoption of foreign media and techniques is introduced in the third gallery. They are the Cantonese brothers Gao Jianfu (1878-1951) and Gao Qifeng (1889-1933), Feng Zikai (1898-1975), and Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) – all of whom studied in Japan – and the European-trained Xu Beihong (1895-1953), who championed a form of realism derived from French academic art. The next two galleries are given over to an in-depth examination of the works of the three leading mid-20th-century advocates of a new traditionalism in Chinese painting: Qi Baishi (1864-1957), Huang Binhong (1865-1955), and Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983). The last three galleries of the exhibition survey leading painters active during the first 30 years of the People's Republic, which was founded on October 1, 1949.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are: Spring Offering (1919), presenting popular emblems of long life and renewal in an abstract arrangement, by Wu Changshi; Grazing Horse (1932), wedding the conventional Chinese medium of brush and ink with a drawing technique that was purely Western, by the most influential champion of Western-style academic realism Xu Beihong; Buddha's Manifestation of Joyfulness (1946), by leading connoisseur and collector as well as notorious forger Zhang Daqian; Odalisque, in which economy of line, decorative use of pattern, and vibrant color reflect a Fauvist source of inspiration, by Lin Fengmian (1900-1991); and Seascape at Beidaihe (1977), translating actual scenery into a composition that verges on total abstraction, by Wu Guanzhong (born 1919).

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue – authored by Wen Fong, the Douglas Dillon Curator Emeritus and former Chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan – Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Winter 2000 issue of the Museum's Bulletin, written by curator Maxwell K. Hearn, presents a selection of masterpieces from the Ellsworth Collection that chronicles the key artists and stylistic innovations of this period. The accompanying publications are made possible by The Dillon Fund.

On Saturday, May 19, a one-day symposium will be held in the conjunction with the exhibition. The symposium will take place in the Grace Rainy Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan.

The exhibition is organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, Curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan.


November 13, 2000

Press resources