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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911): Courtiers, Officials, and Professional Artists

Two Ming Princes
Two of the most outstanding artists of the early Qing period were descendants of the Ming royal house: Zhu Da (1626–1705) and Zhu Ruoji (1642–1707), both of whom became better known by their assumed names, Bada Shanren and Shitao.

A scion of the Ming imperial family from a branch enfeoffed in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, Zhu Da became a “crazy” Buddhist monk, shamming deafness and madness in order to escape persecution after the fall of the Ming dynasty. Lodging his feelings of frustration and vulnerability in his art, he created a deeply personal expressionist style that reflects his ambivalence about his life in hiding and his failure to acknowledge his identity as a Ming prince.

Shitao was only two years old when the Ming dynasty fell. Saved by a loyal retainer, he was given sanctuary and anonymity in the Buddhist priesthood. In the late 1660s and 1670s, while living in seclusion in temples around Xuancheng, Anhui Province, he trained himself to paint. After many years of wandering from place to place in the south and spending nearly three years in Beijing, Shitao moved to the commercial center of Yangzhou around 1695, where he renounced his status as a Buddhist monk and supported himself through his painting. Drawing upon his love of natural scenery and his technical facility with brush and ink, Shitao created the most original landscape style of the seventeenth century.

Commercialism in Art: Yangzhou
The city of Yangzhou, located along the Grand Canal between the Huai salt fields and the Yangzi River, became a prosperous commercial hub during the Qing dynasty thanks to the salt monopoly centered there. During the eighteenth century, the city surpassed even Suzhou in the number of important artists active there, as the burgeoning fortunes of salt merchants and other entrepreneurs created opportunities for artistic experimentation as well as conspicuous consumption.

Yangzhou’s mercantile elite supported a diverse array of artists who worked in two distinct pictorial traditions. One group, exemplified by Yuan Jiang (active ca. 1680–ca. 1730) and members of his atelier, worked in the courtly tradition, producing large-scale, richly detailed works in mineral pigments on silk that epitomize the Yangzhou taste for ostentatious display. Another group of artists, later known as the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou,” drew inspiration from the highly individualistic works of Shitao. Practicing a self-expressive, calligraphic painting manner, these artists specialized in figural subjects or auspicious flower and bird images that appealed to the tastes of a broader public and were less demanding as well as more commercially viable than landscape painting.

Imperial Patronage under the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–95)
Under the Qianlong emperor, the Manchu empire reached its zenith. While the emperor’s ambitious military campaigns in the far west extended Qing control over large portions of Tibet and Central Asia, the Chinese heartland enjoyed an extended era of peace and prosperity as the population doubled, farmlands expanded, and commerce flourished.

Court patronage also reached a high point in both refinement and output during this period. The finest craftsmen were recruited to serve in the palace workshops, including a number of European Jesuit missionaries whose representational techniques were particularly admired by the Qing emperors, who found them useful in the documentation of their appearance and deeds. 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.

A key figure in establishing this new court aesthetic was the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), who lived in China from 1716 until his death in 1766 and who adopted the Chinese name Lang Shining. A master of vividly naturalistic draftsmanship and large-scale compositions, Castiglione worked with Chinese assistants to create a synthesis of European methods and traditional Chinese media and formats.