A Group of Anonymous Northern Figure Paintings from the Qianlong Period


A Group of Anonymous Northern Figure Paintings from the Qianlong Period

James Cahill



Fig. 1. Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century. "Scene from the Story of the Western Wing." Hanging scroll (mounted as a panel), ink and colors on silk, 198.5 cm x 130.6 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.517.


Among the finest figure paintings of the late period in China are a group of five works that are all essentially anonymous, even while four of them bear, respectively, an old and absurd attribution, an interpolated inscription, an unreliable signature, and misleading seals. In fact, no reliable evidence for dating or authorship accompanies any of them. One, the well-known depiction of the principals of the "Romance of the Western Chamber" drama in the Freer Gallery of Art, carries an old attribution to the tenth century figure master Zhou Wenju (Fig. 1).[i] Another, the  “Beautiful Woman in Her Boudoir” in the Sackler Museum at Harvard, bears an inscription purporting to have been written in 1643 by a painter named Wu Zhuo, claiming it to be his portrait of "Mme. Hedong," i.e. the famous woman poet Liu Rushi or Liu Yin (1618-1664) (Fig. 2). The inscription has clearly been added, probably when the work was cut down in size, to give respectability to what is really an anonymous and generic meiren or beautiful woman picture, painted long after 1643.[ii] These two and a third painting, a representation of the bodhisattva Guanyin and the boy Sudhana in the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Fig. 3),[iii] agree in so many fine points of imagery and style--the faces, the drapery drawing, the meticulous portrayal of gold ornaments, textile patterns, spotted bamboo (the chair in the "Western Wing" picture, the fan frame in the "Mme. Hedong")--that they might be seen as works of a single studio, if not of a single hand.


Fig, 2, Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century. “Beautiful Woman in Her Boudoir.” (Falsely called "Portrait of Mme. Hedong," i.e. Liu Rushi or Liu Yin; interpolated inscription with signature of Wu Zhuo and date 1643.) Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 118.4 x 62.2 cm. Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Oriental Objects Fund, 1968.40.


Fig. 3. Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century. "Guanyin on a Lotus Leaf." Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 106 x 61 cm.  Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. John Roberts, Jr. (77.315).


The other two works are close in style to these, although not enough so to suggest that they are products of the same studio or hand. Both, as it happens, are wrongly ascribed to the figure painter Leng Mei (ca. 1670-1742 or later), whose reliable oeuvre is distinctive and consistent enough to permit the exclusion from it of non-conforming works. (Because of Leng's fame and popularity, such works are many—his name, like Qiu Ying's in earlier periods, becomes more a designation of type than of real authorship.) One, a large family-occasion picture probably intended for New Year's hanging, bears a "Leng Mei" signature, but like Yonezawa Yoshiho, who first published the painting,[iv] I would take this to be an interpolation and see the work as anonymous (Fig. 4). The other is an eight-leaf album of erotic scenes bearing seals purporting to be those of Leng Mei; here, too, the style is different from Leng's, and, I will argue, later (Fig. 5).[v]


Fig. 4. Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century (interpolated signature of Leng Mei.) "A Family Celebrating New Year's." Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 159.8 x 110,5 cm. London Gallery, Tokyo (formerly Yoshiro Murakami collection, Tokyo.) (From: Kokka, no. 776, 1956.)


Fig. 5. Anon., third quarter eighteenth century (false seals of Leng Mei). “Gardener Boy and Maid.” Leaf from an album of eight leaves, ink and colors on silk, 29.2 x 28.3 cm. Private collection (formerly Paul Moss, London.)


A number of other paintings known to me only from reproductions and photographs can provisionally be added to these, on the basis of their style; I will mention only two. A second version of the "Madame Hedong" picture, valuable for revealing the complete composition (the other has been cut down in size), was published in an old journal (Fig. 6);[vi] this one, too, is misrepresented as a portrait of a famous woman, this time a "self-portrait" of Ma Shouzhen (active 1592-1628). The other painting (Fig. 7), now to be seen only in an old photograph, represents a woman in a bordello or a courtesan's chambers being presented to a guest (the viewer) by a maid; it bears an interpolated inscription signed "Tang Yin" but is far later than the time of that great Ming master (1470-1523).[vii]


Fig. 6. Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century. “Beautiful Woman in Her Boudoir.” Complete version of same composition as Fig. 2; inscription falsely claiming it to be a self-portrait of Ma Shouzhen (1548-1604).  From Ostasiatische Zeitschrift vol.1, 1912, p. 58.


Fig. 7. Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century. (False inscription and signature of Tang Yin). “Woman in a Brothel Presented to a Guest.” Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 167 x 62.5 cm. Formerly E. A. Strehlneek, Shanghai.


These false indicators should not be misunderstood to mean that the paintings were done as forgeries; they were turned into that by later dealers and other owners who wanted to elevate their respectability and market value. Nor does their anonymity make them inferior to "genuine" name-artist works; on the contrary, they reach levels of refinement and nuances of expression quite beyond the attainment of Leng Mei in any but a few of his paintings. Their high quality and importance in late Chinese figure painting is in fact good reason for trying to give them a provisional art-historical placement, in the hope that some works in the same style with reliable signatures or seals may eventually turn up that will confirm or alter it, and bestow on the artists the credit they deserve.

I will state here at the outset my tentative conclusions about these paintings, and then will offer the evidence and arguments that support those conclusions. First, that they were executed some time around the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the 1750s-70s. Second, that they were done by artists working in the Beijing area. Third, that they can best be understood within the development of a northern school of figure painting that had its inception in the late Kangxi and Yongzheng eras, i.e. the early decades of the eighteenth century. Fourth, that they belong within the "outside" wing of a rich interaction of artists and styles inside and outside the imperial court Academy. And fifth, that they (and other pictures of this kind) were done for a clientele made up in some part, although certainly not exclusively, of princely households. My plan is to proceed on an inward spiral, so to speak, moving around this group of works, referring to them only glancingly without discussing them in detail (as is done in my book), introducing relevant information and related paintings in the hope that doing so will bring us closer to understanding the circumstances of their production, even though we never reach a center, in the sense of a firm and detailed art-historical placement of them, a goal that seems at present beyond attainment.

A Northern School of Figure Painting

Evidence for the rise and development of a northern school of figure painting in the eighteenth century, flourishing chiefly in the Beijing region, outside the imperial court Academy but interacting closely with it, is presented in my in-press book Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China.[viii] The leading northern figure master of late Ming, born in Shandong and active in Beijing, was Cui Cizhong (d. 1644). Some features of his bizarre, archaistic style, with its attenuated figures and Western-derived shading, must have been carried on in early works by the Shandong-based masters Jiao Bingzhen (act. 1680-1726) and his pupil Leng Mei (ca. 1670-1742 or later), and brought with them when they entered the imperial Academy in the late Kangxi era.[ix] The relaxation of this style into a more naturalistic mode, in some part through contacts with artists from the Jiangnan (Yangtze Delta) cities, many of whom had come north in search of patronage or to be employed in the court Academy, might be seen as the starting point for our northern school development. We can see it exemplified, I believe, in a painting by Jiao Bingzhen that has recently come to light, his "Lady Arranging Blossoming Plum Branches in a Bronze Pot" (Fig. 8). The signature on it, written small and neat, reads Jiao Bingzhen gong hui (Respectfully Painted by Jiao Bingzhen); I would tentatively suggest that this formula, similar to the one used on imperially-commissioned paintings but lacking the word chen, "your subject," that accompanies signatures on works done for the emperor, indicates a non-imperial high-level patron, perhaps a prince. In any case, the differences between the woman seen here and those in Jiao's works for the court are striking: where the women in his court paintings are unnaturally elongated, with stiffer bodies and simple oval faces,[x] the woman in the hanging scroll sits in a relaxed posture, her articulated body revealed by her clothing, her face drawn more naturalistically and imparting some sense of inner life. Differences of this kind will be seen to typify the diverging stylistic and expressive directions of the two closely related but separable spheres of painting production, the court Academy and our hypothetical northern school outside it.


Fig. 8. Jiao Bingzhen (act. 1688-1720),  “Woman Arranging Flowers in a Bronze Pot.” Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 154.5 x 97.5 cm. Collection unknown. From: Christie’s Hong Kong auction cat., Fine Classical Paintings and Calligraphy, April 25, 2004, lot no. 430.

 An important northern figure painter who has received little attention is Cui Hui (act. ca. 1720s-1740s or later). He was from Liaoyang in present-day Liaoning Province, but was active in Beijing--one of his works is signed "Beiping Cui Hui."[xi] He was probably from a bannerman family; his surname and the term given as his birthplace, Sanhan, suggest that he may have been of Korean ancestry, but the evidence is inconclusive. Several of his paintings are in the Palace Museum, Beijing (one of them, an album of bird-and-flower paintings, dated 1721) and the Tianjin Municipal Museum. There is no record of his having worked within the court, although he is said to have studied painting under Jiao Bingzhen; he must have known Leng Mei. From Cui's hand are two of the most original and moving images of women we have from late-period China: an imaginary portrait of the twelfth-century poet Li Qingzhao (1084-ca. 1151) in her study,[xii] and a painting of a woman in a garden pavilion in autumn, awaiting the return of her husband from a frontier garrison, based on a Li Qingzhao poem (Fig. 9). The affinities in the figure style and the figure-and-setting relationship with such a painting as Jiao Bingzhen's  (Fig. 8) are clear: the natural pose of the figure, the overtones of human emotion, the use of surrounding space to allow reverberations of feeling.  Even closer in many respects is the album bearing (misleading) Leng Mei seals (Fig. 5)—so close as to suggest an attribution of that album to a follower of Cui Hui, or conceivably to Cui himself. These connections, and the high quality of his work, establish the importance of Cui Hui as an identifiable master within the development we are tracing.


Fig. 9. Cui Hui (act. ca. 1720s-1740s or later), "Lady in Garden Pavilion." Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 143 x 79 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing.


Types of Patronage

The situation of academic-style painting in Beijing in the Yongzheng-Qianlong eras seems to have been like that in Hangzhou in the Southern Song period, when artists trained in that tradition worked both inside and outside the court, and considerable interaction occurred between the two spheres. Outside the Academy, we can conjecture (with a few clues), support and commissions for artists came from wealthy and powerful patrons of several categories, beginning with the Manchu nobility. Many imperial princes, sons and grandsons of the emperor, lived within the Forbidden City, and many others, mostly those of the emperor’s generation and older, lived in lavish style with their large households in imperial villas northwest of Beijing, and in the imperial gardens, the Changchun Yuan and Yuanming Yuan.[xiii] These, along with well-to-do and powerful Manchu officials and Qing bannermen families living in the Beijing area, must have made up a rich community of consumers for this growing output of technically finished, relatively naturalistic painting, which suited their aristocratic tastes, and which was too time-consuming and technically demanding to be within the reach of all but the most well-off commoners.

Howard Rogers writes about, and cites evidence for, "a rise in private patronage among Manchu nobility and high officials" as a "major development of the later Kangxi era."[xiv] Prosperous Han-Chinese officials, and presumably merchants as well, must be added to the mix of those with enough wealth and status to collect paintings and support artists. We can begin to note, with suitable caution—the evidence is still scanty—what appears to be a pattern in the kinds of paintings they preferred. The Han-Chinese officials seem to have been the main support for artists from the south, such as Luo Ping from Yangzhou, who worked in some version of the literati or "amateur" styles even while they were in fact making their livings through their painting.[xv] These officials were also the principal patrons for the portraitist Yü Zhiding (1647-1710 or after), another from Yangzhou. Members of the Manchu nobility, perhaps in part because they grew up seeing pictures in the "academic" manner in the court and princely environment, seem to have preferred paintings in that manner, whether by Academy masters who produced some work outside the court, by independent Beijing-area masters such as those who made up our Northern school, or by painters from other places who followed the "academic," Song-derived styles. Examples of the last include Wang Yün (1652-ca. 1735) from Yangzhou, who spent seventeen years in the capital and was a favorite of Prince Kang,[xvi] and Yuan Jiang, another Yangzhou master who specialized in landscapes with palaces and villas in Song-derived styles. One of Yuan's extant paintings bears a seal of Prince Yi (1686-1730), thirteenth son of Kangxi and half-brother of Yongzheng, a seal he used from his enfoeffment in 1723 until his death in 1730.[xvii] The problem of Yuan Jiang's activity in the north will be considered in the section that follows.

This possible correlation between styles and patronage is put forth only as an hypothesis to be tested and refined. It obviously cannot hold true for the Jiangnan cities, where the "academic" styles were popular among urban, not aristocratic, audiences. And the Qing emperors did, to be sure, sponsor literati-style paintings also, especially landscapes, mostly done by painters who also held official rank in their courts, But the mind-numbing repetitiveness of most of those, their relatively strict adherence to established Orthodox-school style, suggests that they served more as emblems of status and legitimacy than as pictures to be enjoyed.

The Problem of Yuan Jiang At Court

A Chinese source written around 1735, shortly after Yuan Jiang's period of traceable activity ends (his last known dated painting is from 1730), states that he served in the court as a zhihou (painter in attendance) during the Yongzheng era (1723-35). Another, published around 1790, adds that his service was in the Outer Yangxin Palace Hall, an "outer branch" of the painting academy set up by Yongzheng in 1731 in the Yuan Ming Yuan, the great imperial garden just outside the city wall to the west, where he was to spend much of his time.[xviii] Yongzheng had already installed a second zaoban chu, the office directing the imperial workshops, in the Yuan Ming Yuan in 1723, the first year of his reign.[xix] That Yuan Jiang was in Beijing in the 1720s-30s seems beyond question; the painting mentioned above with a seal of Prince Yi used in the period 1723-30, and an extant work dated 1724 and done, according to the artist's inscription, "in Yantai" (an old name for Beijing), are evidence for  that.[xx] The problem has to do with his reported service as an academy painter in Yongzheng's Outer Yangxin Palace, and arises from the fact that no Yuan Jiang paintings can be found recorded in the Qianlong imperial catalog, Shiqu Baoji, nor do any of his extant signed works bear imperial seals or the chen signature, which would indicate a painting done for the emperor. A number of writers on Yuan Jiang, including myself in an early article,[xxi] have proposed solutions to this problem. I suggested that Yuan had been put to work doing decorative kinds of painting for which artists were not individually credited. Others, including Nie Chongzheng, retired curator at the Palace Museum in Beijing who is a specialist on Qing court painting and has made good use of his special access to Qing court records, have argued that Yuan Jiang probably never served at court at all, and that has been the most widely accepted theory.

The truth of the matter, I believe, is that we have all missed a crucial circumstance, "the elephant in the room." It is true enough that no signed painting by Yuan Jiang is known from his presumed service in Yongzheng's "outer branch" of the Academy in the Yuan Ming Yuan. But the same is equally true of nearly all the other artists who worked there: no signed work by them is known. With surprisingly few exceptions—some paintings by the Italian Jesuit artist Lang Shining (1688-1766), landscapes by Tang-dai (1673-after 1752), several paintings by Chen Mei (d. 1745) done alone or with other artists, four or five auspicious pictures, perhaps a few others unknown to me[xxii]—the entire output of Yongzheng's court painters appears to have been absorbed into the project of producing, anonymously and collaboratively, a huge body of paintings in hanging-scroll, handscroll, and album form, many or most of them including images of Yongzheng himself. The recent publication of two large selections from these permits us to assess this great expanse of nameless work in "homogenized" styles. It is like some massive Cultural Revolution project in which teams of artists worked selflessly in turning out a series of elaborate and detailed pictures, most of them with Chairman Mao in the center. To observe that most of these paintings were probably intended for decorating the palaces and other buildings erected during the great expansion of the Yuanming Yuan carried out under Yongzheng's reign, and to furnish them with pictures for the emperor's enjoyment, helps to account for their character but not to excuse it: great paintings had been made throughout the previous centuries for the decoration of palaces, many of them the acknowledged work of individual masters.

Yuan Jiang was probably, I believe, one of such a team of artists engaged in the Yongzheng project; many of the paintings are imposing architectural compositions with palace buildings and figures, exactly the genre in which Yuan excelled.[xxiii] It is true that we cannot easily distinguish his individual hand among these, but neither can we detect in them the recognizable hands of any other court artists.[xxiv] All those who took part in this undertaking were willing, or forced, to submerge their artistic personalities—insofar as these had survived into the Academy at all--to the will of a ruler who wanted, apparently, pictures with images of himself prominent in them, along with his ministers and servants, consorts and concubines—pictures not cluttered with artists' signatures or inscriptions--and who cared nothing for style. A recent writer, on the basis of Yongzheng's support for the imperial workshops and his love of antiques, has called him "the first true art lover among the Manchu rulers," but that judgment needs some qualification.[xxv]

Who were the artists of Yongzheng's court Academy? Howard Rogers identifies three who entered it at the beginning of the era, and names others who probably served in the "outer branch" of the Academy in the Yuan Ming Yuan.[xxvi] A chronological charting of Qing court painting, compiled by the Palace Museum staff from court records, lists four artists who were assigned in 1723 to study with Lang Shining, and eleven others who entered the Academy in 1726.[xxvii] Yuan Jiang's name does not appear on either list, but these are surely not complete: they do not include, for instance, Zhang Zhen, a Yangzhou master who probably had entered court service in the late Kangxi or early Yongzheng era, and his son Zhang Weibang, both of whom must have served under Yongzheng.[xxviii] Zhang Weibang is one of four artists named in a record of 1736 as holding an appointment in the Yuan Ming Yuan at the beginning of the Qianglong era, when artists were again able to assume more distinct personalities and sign their works.[xxix] We know the names of quite a few who served in the Yongzheng Academy, that is, but by no means all of them.

Major figure masters who had been active there earlier, on the other hand, seem to have avoided service under Yongzheng. Jiao Bingzhen painted an album of scenes of palace ladies during this period, and signed it xiaochen Jiao Bingzhen gonghua ("Respectfully painted by your lesser subject. . ."); but inscriptions on facing leaves are written by Prince Bao, who would become the Qianlong Emperor, and Jiao may have been staying with him, the two producing this album together for presentation to the emperor. Jiao's name does not appear again in court records or on paintings. Leng Mei may also have been a "painter guest" in Prince Bao's household, as suggested by Nie Chongzheng; in 1735 he painted an album that bears a seal used by Prince Bao before his succession.[xxx] Chen Mei, as noted above, entered the Academy in 1726 and painted a birthday picture for Yongzheng in that year, and in 1728 began work on the Qingming Shanghe Tu, the collaborative handscroll that would be presented to the new Qianlong emperor in 1736.[xxxi] But some time around 1728 he was "granted a leave of absence from the court so that he could return home to marry." His works done outside the court, which like those of Leng Mei can be identified by the way they are signed, date between 1728 and 1735. On the accession of Qianlong Chen Mei was back in court, and produced many paintings in the years after that, until his retirement to Hangzhou and his death in 1745.

Whatever the reason, all of Chen Mei's out-of-court paintings are landscapes, some with figures and animals, in a distinctive semi-westernized style. No such pictures, on the other hand, are to be seen among those he made as an Academy artist, judging at least from extant and published works. We may speculate that the kind of informal and atmospheric naturalism of these paintings, with their strong effects of sunlight and shade, unpatterned tangles of tree limbs and foliage, and convincing recessions of earthy ground surfaces, was as unwelcome in court circles as were the more relaxed and humanized kinds of figure painting. That hypothesis is supported by comparison of two Chen Mei paintings with identical compositions, one dated 1730, the other 1735; the latter bears two collector's seals of Prince Bao, and suggests that Chen Mei, as another of the future Qianlong Emperor's "painting guests" at the end of the Yongzheng era, redid his earlier picture for his host. The earlier version has all the striking depths and nuances, achieved with highly unorthodox brushwork and strongly contrasting ink values, that distinguish Chen Mei's out-of-Academy works. In the later one these qualities are mostly gone, replaced by a drier, flatter mode of execution and forms closer to those of the Orthodox mode.[xxxii]

Leng Mei's Period Outside the Academy

Since Leng Mei's absence from the court during the Yongzheng years may be relevant to the development of our northern school, the circumstances behind it are worth recounting here. They have been reconstructed, tentatively but convincingly, by Yang Boda and Nie Chongzheng.[xxxiii]

Leng had come into the Academy about 1690, and between then and 1723 had produced a number of dated or datable paintings and taken part in collaborative projects such as the huge pair of handscrolls, titled Wanshou Tu,  "Myriad Blessings" pictures, prepared for the Kangxi emperor's sixtieth birthday between 1713 and 1717.[xxxiv] Some time late in the Kangxi era he painted an album of didactic Confucian subjects titled Yangzheng Tu (Preservation of Righteousness PIctures), probably for the instruction of one of Kangxi's sons who was favored to succeed to the throne.[xxxv] But another son, Yinzhen, seized the throne by force upon Kangxi's death and declared himself the Yongzheng emperor, imprisoning or executing the rival imperial princes and purging the court of their supporters.[xxxvi] Leng Mei, through his association with one of the other princes, may have been one of those banished. Additional factors that can be suggested for his leaving court service, supposing it was in some part voluntary, may have been the supplanting of his and his teacher’s figure style in imperial favor by that of artists from Yangzhou, and the prospect of having to take part in the huge anonymous and collective project that, as described above, seems to have dominated court painting during the Yongzheng reign.

Whatever the cause, there is no record that Leng Mei did any work at court during the thirteen years of the Yongzheng era, nor, in any painting dated to those years, does his signature include the word chen, which would indicate that it was a court production. Moreover, the paintings on which Leng Mei himself wrote dates are all from these years outside the Academy.  As noted earlier, he may have been, late in that period, a "painter guest" of Hongli or Prince Bao, who succeeded to the throne as the Qianlong emperor on Yongzheng's death in 1735.[xxxvii] Leng Mei was reinstated at court in that year, and began again to produce signed works for the court—no less than eight in 1736 alone, when Qianlong issued the highly unusual order to "give Leng Mei eight pieces of painting silk, and have him paint them as he wishes."[xxxviii] He served with high honors until he retired from the Academy in 1742. How much longer he lived is not known.

The question of Leng Mei's activity as a painter during the "missing years" is of particular concern here, since some of his works that can be provisionally assigned to those years, done presumably for patrons outside the imperial court, fall into the genres that appear to have been specialties of the "northern school" artists: meiren or "beautiful woman" pictures, “occasional” works to be hung for New Year and other family gatherings, birthday presentation pictures. The abundance of his output during this period, judging from the number that have survived and the shallow and sentimental character of many of them, lead to the assumption that he employed studio assistants in this kind of product. The signature that appears on most works of this period is Jinmen Huashi Leng Mei, ("Painting Master [i.e., professional painter] from the Golden Gate [the imperial court], Leng Mei”). The Jinmen, which he uses also in his seals, asserts with pride his status as a former court painter; he presumably would not have used it while serving in the court Academy.

There are also some high-quality paintings that bear no signatures, but only Leng Mei seals--the British Museum Woman Resting from Reading is one of them[xxxix]--works that do not match in style those with reliable signatures, and should perhaps be ascribed to studio followers. Their existence encourages the hypothesis that Leng Mei, during his years away from court, may have set up a studio to fill the demand for these kinds of functional works. Painting studios in China were commonly family studios, in which relatives were employed to color or otherwise complete compositions sketched out by the master, or to fulfill less important commissions.[xl] In the year immediately following his return to the court, 1736, Leng Mei asked and obtained permission from the Qianlong emperor to employ his son Leng Jian to help him; a second son, Leng Quan, appears to have worked in the capital but was never employed in the court.[xli] It is possible that these two, and perhaps others such as Leng Mei's student Yao Wen-han. who also served in the Qianlong Academy, had been apprentices or assistants to Leng Mei during his years away from court, and that the Leng Mei studio, once established, continued after his return to the Academy, and probably beyond his lifetime, to produce high-quality figure compositions, relying on the prestige of Leng's name and his association with the Imperial Academy but also on the technical excellence of their creations.

Academic-Style Painting in Early and Middle Qing

The foregoing sections have laid out a background for paintings of the kind represented by our group, identifying some of the circumstances attending the development of a "northern school" of figure painting in the Beijing region within which it can be located. They also, I hope, have opened the way for using the term "academic" in a sense free of negative connotations. About academic-style painting as it concerns us, several     things can be said. Its ultimate basis is in the styles of the Southern Song imperial Academy and their extension into the production of painting outside it, along with the continuation of both in some painting of the Ming. Throughout the later centuries it was for the most part critically depreciated; by the end of Ming, good artists could scarcely practice it without some admixture of archaism or other ingredient that tempered its effect, for this period, of being flavorless and outworn. But demand for paintings in the academic styles, pictures to be hung and used by individuals and households somewhat apart from the prestigious works that made up serious collections, did not lessen; the growing prosperity and expanding market of this time saw to that. (These are the kinds of paintings that my Pictures for Use and Pleasure book is about.)

The willingness of many early Qing painters who did pictures of this kind to adopt, and turn to their new and special purposes, elements of Western style from pictorial materials that had become accessible to them was a major factor in a new flourishing of these academic styles among what I call "urban studio artists," those openly professional masters who worked, largely in response to commissions and demand, both in the great Jiangnan cities and in the Beijing region in the north. It is the Jiangnan city masters, artists from Suzhou and Yangzhou but also Jiading, Nanjing, Changshu, Wuxi, Zhenjiang, and others, who mostly staffed the imperial Academy in the early decades of Qing. As Yang Boda points out, court artists working under the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors were called “southern craftsmen” (nanjiang); it was only under the Qianlong emperor that this designation was changed to “painters” (huahuaren).[xlii] The styles the Jiangnan artists brought with them were already affected by Western borrowings; these were reinforced by interaction with northern masters such as Jiao Bingzhen and Leng Mei, and later with Jesuit painters employed in the court, especially Lang Shining. The kinds of selfless collaborations to be discussed in the following section, which appear to have been aimed at erasing individuality of style and personal handwriting in the pursuit of impersonal, "styleless" but strikingly true-to-life images, might in fact be regarded as a Chinese attempt, conscious or not, to approximate the condition of European paintings as they saw them. Consistent with that hypothesis is the prominence of Lang Shining as leading master in many of these collaborations (his name is usually—always?--first in a list of participants), the praise and high honors accorded him by the emperors, and his role as teacher to other Academy artists.

This brief account of the practice of academic-style painting in the early and middle Qing points up a serious imbalance in our studies. Painting of the Manchu imperial Academy, as one manifestation of it, has received a great deal of scholarly attention, partly because the paintings are easily accessible and its history well documented, partly because of the allure of "Forbidden City," second only, perhaps, to "Silk Road" in popular visions of East Asian art. The practice of this kind of painting in the great Jiangnan cities, by contrast, scarcely figures in either Chinese or foreign accounts; and the growth of what I want to call a "northern school" of figure painting in the Yongzheng-Qianlong period, related to and affected by both the former two, has not been recognized at all.

Collaborative Work in the Qing Academy

Collaborative work, in which several or many artists work together on a single painting, sometimes with each contributing some special skill to the joint task, become frequent in the Qing court from the late Kangxi period on. The earliest large-scale Qing example is the production of the Kangxi Nanxun Tu, a set of twelve long scrolls documenting the emperor's second Southern Inspection Tour made in 1689; the project was directed by Wang Hui (1632-1717) and carried out by a number of artists under him over the period 1691-98.[xliii] Other collaborations, already mentioned, include the 1713-16 Wanshou Tu commemorating Kangxi's sixtieth birthday, the large-scale collaborative project carried out by nameless Academy masters under Yongzheng, and the well-known updated version of the Qingming Shanghe Tu done by Chen Mei and three others, begun in 1728 and finished in 1736. Quite a few others could be added.

By the beginning of the Qianlong era, then, the collaborative production of academic-style paintings was a well-established practice.  The project of recording Qianlong's first southern tour (1751) in twelve scrolls, following the precedent set by Kangxi's series, was accomplished this time by a court Academy master named Xu Yang during the period 1764-70. Xu Yang signs the last scroll as though he were the single painter of all of them; Maxwell Hearn, in his study of these scrolls, concludes that the absence of collaborators' names "At the very least . . suggests that Xu had fewer helpers available to him than were available to Wang Hui and that their roles were comparatively unimportant." He adds that "Efforts to curtail the amount of detail in the scrolls, notably by devoting long sections to the depiction of water," also suggest "a shortage of manpower and increase the likelihood that Xu did the majority of the work himself."[xliv] These are good observations; one may nonetheless suspect, viewing the many hundreds of figures and long stretches of street scenes, the sheer square footage covered with finely detailed painting of high technical finish, that Xu Yang (who was also the single credited maker of another complete set of the scrolls executed on paper) enlisted assistants to do some of the routine filling-in of scenes he had sketched out. Team projects of this kind testify to the availability in the city of minor artists trained in the academic styles who could be called upon when needed. We will encounter a few of them below.

A collaborative work that has some stylistic affinities with our group is an album of twenty scenes of porcelain manufacture, done around 1743 by Ding Guanpeng (entered Academy 1726; d. 1770) and two other artists of the Qianlong court; it was sold at auction in 1996 and is presently whereabouts unknown.[xlv] A leaf depicting the glazing of pots will serve to exemplify the style: clearly defined and interrelated spaces within which the figures are set; objects such as the vats of glaze and the well shaded for three-dimensional effect; washes of pale color for a sense of atmosphere (Fig. 10). Ding Guanpeng, who was from Beijing, served as the top-ranking master in a number of collaborative projects of this kind; he was one of six top-grade artists of the Qianlong Academy, and under Yongzheng had received the highest salary of any.[xlvi] His success is an indication of the esteem that a northern master working only in the academic manner could win by this time.

Fig. 10. Ding Guanpeng (entered Academy 1726; d. 1770) and two other artists, "Illustrations of Porcelain Manufacture." Leaf from an album of twenty leaves, ink and colors on silk, 29 x 25 cm. Collection unknown. From: Christie's Hong Kong auction catalog, 28 April 1996, The Imperial Sale, lot no. 65.

This, the Xu Yang "Southern Tour" scrolls, and other collaborative paintings done in the Qianlong Academy represent another stylistic coalescing, like the one seen in the Yongzheng court paintings, into a more or less homogeneous, highly polished mode of depiction. Although some joint works by nameless collaborators continue to be made in the Qianlong period, following the Yongzheng model, the Qianlong court collaborations are more often signed, with the artists all named; they can exhibit subtle differences in style. But on the whole they fit comfortably into Hearn's characterization of the style of the Xu Yang scrolls, which, he writes, "may be summarized as meticulous in detail, eclectic in its sources, but homogeneous in appearance, with idiosyncracies of personality subordinated to a universal Academy manner."[xlvii] Included in its eclecticism, as noted earlier, was a strong admixture of foreign style, learned from European paintings and prints to be seen in China, but also from Jesuit artists working in the court, especially Lang Shining. By this time it had been so thoroughly absorbed into the homogeneous Academy manner as to have lost its exoticism and become a well-established way of enhancing the illusionism, the "true-to-life" quality, of the paintings.

Quite apart from the obvious reasons for employing multiple artists on a single work—combining skills, faster production, larger and more elaborate compositions incorporating more visual information--collaboration permitted a further degree of what was already a deliberate erasure of individual style and handwriting. We now are inclined, with good reason, to regard this impersonal character negatively, as robbing the paintings of feeling and aesthetic interest, but for the emperors it had positive value. What Qianlong, like Yongzheng, mostly expected from his court painters was optically "true" images, not manifestations of personal style; if he felt inclined to enjoy the latter, he could turn to the works of individual famous masters in his unparalleled collection, or (in principle if scarcely in practice) to paintings by "literati" artists serving as officials in his court. The paintings of his Academy artists recorded visual experiences convincingly enough to function like photographs in preserving and evoking memories of those experiences—his travels, his hunts, court ceremonies (all selectively re-imagined, to be sure), his pets and his consorts—or recalled his viewings of old paintings such as the Qingming scroll by doing a copy or imitation of it. They might also stimulate imaginings of ideal experiences he might have. We will return later to this last function.

Excursus on Words

The above references to "academic" styles and "optically 'true'" images raise the continuing problem of our usage of characterizing terms of this kind. It emerged in several contexts during the "Bridges to Heaven" symposium, perhaps most strongly at the end in response to Richard Barnhart's paper on "The Song Experiment with Mimesis." Apart from the familiar dangers of applying foreign terms, with their unavoidable baggage of foreign concepts, to Chinese styles and art-historical episodes, the legitimacy of calling one style or image more "mimetic" than another (or more naturalistic, realistic, true-to-life—which term fits best is a separate problem not addressed here) is today frequently questioned, on the curious grounds that elements of convention can be identified in the achievement of any effect of verisimilitude; the artist is not simply "portraying what he sees." The former problem had come up long ago at another Princeton symposium, the "Artists and Traditions" of 1969, when a colleague in European classical art criticized our use of the term "archaism," pointing out that we applied it (for instance, in writing about early Yuan landscapists' revival of pre-Song styles) to somewhat different situations than they did. My response then, and my belief now, is that if we were to allow ourselves to be dissuaded from employing an English-language term in our writings because it did not correspond neatly with its usage in Western art-historical studies, we would be left without a working vocabulary, Our only sensible course was and is to define our particular usage as best we can and go on using the term. (My own contribution to that project, on that occasion, was an attempt to define "orthodoxy" in Chinese landscape painting as fully and exactly as I could.)[xlviii] At the more recent symposium we were told—unsurprising news--that mimesis in Song painting as Barnhart used the term (and everyone present knew what he meant by it, whether or not they agreed with his use of it) was different from what is called mimesis in the European painting tradition. We also learned, from Maggie Bickford's original and perceptive paper, that the quality of "lifelikeness" in some bird-and-flower painting of the Huizong Academy and earlier was achieved by unsuspected means. The eye is fooled; but so is it fooled, in a different direction, by some French Impressionist paintings that appear to have been executed in a quick and spontaneous manner but turn out to have been produced by careful, systematic overlays of brushstrokes. The effect in each case is no less of truth-to-life or of spontaneity. What these observations--quite legitimate and valuable in themselves-- lead to, then, is mimesis-plus, or mimesis modified, or mimesis attained by unexpected means. What none of them leads to is non-mimesis--they cannot, that is, negate or seriously dilute the strongly mimetic character of much of the best Song painting. Similarly, we could list and analyze the ways in which Song or Qing academic painting differs from, say, French 19th century academic oil painting; that would be worth doing. But the French examples no more nullify the academicism of the Chinese than the Chinese do the French: they are different varieties of academicism.

The Gengzhi Tu Album by Xu Pu

The homogeneous "universal Academy manner" for the Qianlong period, once firmly established both inside and outside the Academy as an all-purpose mode of depiction, no doubt served as the basic training for apprentices aspiring to be professional masters, and could be used as well by a single artist as by a group. A little-known academician named Xu Pu (active mid-18th cent.) used it in copying the series of Gengzhi Tu, or  "Pictures of Rice Culture and Silk Culture," painted originally in the 1690s on order of Kangxi by Jiao Bingzhen and first printed by woodblock in 1696 (Fig. 11).[xlix] Jiao Bingzhen's original paintings have not been preserved, but a number of painted copies, of which this is one, are based on the printed pictures. (That Xu Pu worked on the basis of the prints is indicated by his writing "copied and added colors" with his signature.) The figure style and the landscape settings have affinities to those in several leaves (not reprohere) of the "Leng Mei" album (cf. Fig. 5 and note 5)—in the diagonal recessions, in the shading on figures and animals, in the sense of atmosphere and distance achieved by washes of pale blue and green. (The last two features pertain to Xu Pu's style, not Jiao Bingzhen's, since Xu knew Jiao's pictures only by way of the linear woodblock prints.


Fig. 11. Xu Pu (active mid-18th cent.), "Plowing," from Gengzhi Tu ("Pictures of Rice Culture and Silk Culture"), album of forty-two leaves, ink and colors on silk, 22.2 x 23.8 cm. National Historical Museum, Beijing. From: China, Treasures and Splendors, exhib. cat., Montreal, Palais de la Civilizations, 1986, no. 130.


The information on Xu Pu in the standard dictionary of artists records a collaborative project he carried out with three other minor painters in 1751, a Zhigong Tu, "Tribute Bearers," which probably consisted of preliminary research and sketches for the handscroll series of that title, a kind of illustrated ethnological study showing pairs of figures from many countries and cultures accompanied by long informational texts, painted in the Academy by Ding Guanpeng and three other artists from 1761.[l] Two of the artists who worked with Xu Pu were graduates of the Guozi Jian, the Imperial College set up in the capital, which brought them little prestige or access to official positions;[li] they may have contributed more to the documentary than to the pictorial side of the project.  No painting by any of them is known to me; we can include them among the numerous minor artists working in the academic style in the capital, for various kinds and levels of patronage.

Xu Pu's Gengzhi Tu album, undistinguished in other respects, takes on some importance for our investigation when we observe the pattern of signature and seals on it. He signs, in small, neat characters on the last leaf: Neifu Jiao Bingzhen ben, chen Xu Pu gongmu shi'se ("Your subject Xu Pu has respectfully copied Jiao Bingzhen's original in the Palace, and added colors.") The presence of the character chen ordinarily indicates that it was made for the emperor, and Qianlong imperial seals appear on several of the leaves, including the Shiqu Baoji seal which normally would point to the inclusion of the work in the imperial catalog of that name. But it appears not to be recorded there. A collection seal on the mounting of the first leaf reads ceng cun Ding-fu You Heng Tang, indicating that it was owned at some time by Prince Ding. This must be Mien-en (d. 1822), grandson of Qianlong, who inherited the title on the death of his father in 1750 and was deprived of it for wrongdoing in 1776.[lii] The album, then, might have been painted by Xu Pu for this prince, perhaps as a painter-in-residence, and then presented to the emperor. Alternatively, it was painted for the emperor while Xu was an Academy artist and presented to Prince Ding. The absence of any seals of later emperors supports the latter account, as does the chen signature--although the possibility should be left open that painters might have sometimes used this signature on works done for imperial princes.[liii] In either case, the album provides another example of the interchange between court and princely households--the environment, I am arguing, for much of the painting under consideration here.  

Idealizing Images of the Emperors and Imagined Consorts

Among the kinds of painting done in the Academy that portrayed the emperor in some ideal situation, or depicted scenes and spaces into which he could imagine entering, some have distinct erotic implications. He might be assigned a role in the Han-Chinese narrative of the scholar-beauty romance, as in a pair of panel (?) paintings portraying Qianlong as a scholar in his study, gazing through a window at a beautiful woman putting a flower in her hair, preparing to receive him.[liv] These are unsigned, but probably a collaboration between Jin Tingbiao (entered Academy 1757, d. 1768) and Lang Shining. Others show the emperor surrounded by beautiful consorts, or gazing at them.[lv] Another type, which represents an adoption into the court of a genre popular outside it, simply presents the beautiful woman in an interior, open to the gaze of the (presumably male) viewer outside that space; this is the imperial equivalent of the popular genre of meiren hua or beautiful-woman pictures. Yongzheng's version of this type can be seen in the famous "Twelve Beauties" paintings, works of the late Kangxi period (they bear inscriptions written by Yongzheng while he was still a prince.) Originally they were panels in a pair of weiping or "surrounding screens" within which he could sit in his favorite haunt in the Yuan Ming Yuan (where they were kept), gazing at imagined Han-Chinese concubines in lavishly-appointed palace interiors (Fig. 11).[lvi] A painting of this type done for Qianlong is the "Beautiful Woman Arranging a Flower in Her Hair" by Jin Tingbiao (Fig.12).  



Fig. 12. Anonymous, ca. 1710-1720, "Beauty in Palace Interior." Panel of a twelve-fold screen, ink and colors on silk, 184 x 98 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing.



To achieve their effects—which are very different from the refined aesthetic experiences literati paintings were meant to arouse—paintings of this kind needed to be as if transparent, free of impediments to "seeing through" the surface to the scene or occupied space beyond. Song paintings had aimed at similar effects; the difference is that the Qing-period academic-style pictures more often make inconspicuous use of perspective and other devices to locate the viewer in a way Song  paintings did not, firming his implied relationship with the scene or object viewed. Prominent brushstrokes marred this effect by holding one's attention at the surface, as did inscriptions and seals, which are usually confined in such pictures, if present at all, to marginal areas of the composition. (It is significant in this regard that the inscriptions in the Twelve Beauties paintings are written as though on surfaces within the picture, not on the painting surface.) In the large hanging-scroll pictures of this kind that are meant to function visually like doorways or windows that draw the viewer's gaze, and sometimes in imagination the viewer himself, into the space beyond, even those are eliminated; if the artist signs, it is in tiny, all-but-invisible characters in hidden places. (Hidden signatures on academic-style Song paintings are to be understood the same way—they do not hamper the pictorial effect.) These pictures were virtually always painted on silk, a more "transparent" surface in that it allowed finer detail and more even shading, and discouraged rough-brush and other eye-catching distractions.

Jin Tingbiao's meiren picture bears a "hidden" signature in lower left, using the chen character that identifies the emperor himself as the intended recipient. Its affinities with the paintings of our group, especially the Freer "Western Wing" picture (Fig. 1), are immediately apparent: the stage-like foreground within which the large figures are set as principal subjects; the woman leaning on a table; the deep, step-by-step penetration created beyond (in both cases continuing into a garden); the rich furnishings and antique objects; the tokonoma alcove with a landscape painting hanging in it. (The bordello scene (Fig. 5), otherwise similar, probably featured such an opening-back before it was cut down in size.) None of the earlier examples of the type (cf. Figs 8 and 11, both probably late Kangxi in date) offers a recession so deep, so insistent, so systematically worked out. The woman in Jin's painting is placed a bit farther back, and is of course unaccompanied, except by the maid; she is putting a flower in her hair, preparing for the emperor's coming, or to go to him.

That this kind of composition, as noted above, is much more common outside than inside the Academy suggests that Jin may be deliberately creating here for his imperial patron a kind of meiren composition not truly proper to their world. The Manchu emperors' somewhat surreptitious fascination with the erotic culture of the Jiangnan cities, and their employment of Jiangnan urban masters to recreate aspects of it in their paintings for the court (Jin Tingbiao was from Wuxing in Zhejiang), is a sub-theme of one chapter in my book, where I argue also that the Yangzhou artist Zhang Zhen and his son Weibang were probably doing the same for Yongzheng in the "Twelve Beauties" paintings. The similar sizes of paintings of this kind—the "Twelve Beauties" scrolls, Jin Tingbiao's meiren, and the Freer painting are all roughly two meters in height—indicates that the scale was calculated carefully to facilitate imagined access to the foreground figures, which appear as they would if located a short distance beyond the "opening" of the picture plane. Pictures of this kind are not entirely devoid of individual traits of style—Jin Tingbiao's beauty, for instance, has a thinner face, and the drapery drawing is heavier than that in the Freer painting. But style in the sense of idiosyncratic distortions or simplifications of form, those creative acts by which images are transformed into configurations of brushstrokes, are not to be seen, and are quite irrelevant to academic-style painting. Jin Tingbiao, a versatile master, was quite capable of other styles as well, in works intended for other kinds of viewing.[lvii]

Since Jin Tingbiao's period of activity is known, the resemblance of his painting to at least one of our group supports the dating of the group about the same time, the third quarter of the eighteenth century.

The Qianlong Albums Master

Among the high-level erotic albums produced in this period, which would appear to be a high point in the development of that genre, are three by an unknown artist whom I have termed the Qianlong Albums Master. His surviving oeuvre, so far as I know, consists of these three, all clearly by the same painter, all originally made up of a mix of erotic and non-erotic leaves (the erotic leaves have been removed from two of them, or from the publications of them.) Twelve leaves from one of the albums (here designated QAM A) are now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 14); these and twelve more are known from an old reproduction album, and it is very probable that those twenty-four, since they belong to a subject type that consistently accompanied openly erotic leaves in what I call part-erotic albums, were joined originally by an approximately equal number of erotic leaves. This was a large-scale project, then, and an imperial project: an additional leaf bears seals, which appear to be genuine, of Qianlong and his successor Jiaqing (r. 1796-1820). The published album reproducing the non-erotic leaves, moreover, bears a note saying that it was formerly in the imperial palace.[lviii] The second album is presumably complete in twelve leaves, evenly divided between erotic and non-erotic (Fig. 15); here designated QAM B, it was sold at auction in 1983 and is presently whereabouts unknown.[lix] The third album, QAM C, is known only in another old reproduction book from the same Shanghai publisher, again with a note saying it came from the palace. It contains a selection of leaves, some double-size horizontal; these, too, must have been accompanied by openly erotic leaves in the original album.[lx] Both QAM A and QAM C contain leaves virtually identical in composition (in one case reversed) to leaves in QAM B; they must all, then, have originated as separate works, and cannot be parts of a single series.


Fig. 15. Anonymous, third quarter eighteenth century. ("Qianlong Albums Master), "Man Tugging Woman, Asking for Sex." Leaf from album of twelve leaves, ink and colors on silk, 36.4 x 34 cm. From: Sotheby's auction catalog, June 18, 1983, lot no. 11.

The non-erotic leaves (Fig.  14, 15), as always in the part-erotic albums, portray scenes and suggest situations leading up to, or following upon, the openly erotic encounters; they serve to contextualize those encounters and deepen their emotive resonances. What is significant for our present concern is that the Qianlong Albums Master seems to have been another who worked both inside and outside the imperial court: the separate leaf in QAM A with Qianlong and Jiaqing collectors' seals presumably establishes his insider status, while the absence of any such evidence associated with the other two indicates that they were done for other than imperial patronage, The absence of imperial seals on the leaves of QAM A themselves suggests some mode of production other than official Academy production and open display. Belonging also to this same shadowy category, presumably, are the four albums of illustrations to Jin Ping Mei, two hundred large, highly detailed pictures, some of them openly erotic, that were done, I have argued, for Kangxi by the Suzhou master Gu Jianlong (1606-1687 or after) during his period at court in the 1660s-70s. Here, too, accompanying leaves bear Qianlong's collector's seals, but no imperial seals are on the paintings.[lxi] We can imagine such albums as having been kept and enjoyed by the emperor and others separately from the more open system of imperial production, cataloguing, and storage, Further research may eventually clarify these elusive circumstances.[lxii]

It is worth noting also that the usual distinctions in style and expression between paintings done inside and outside—the court Academy productions stiffer, cooler, more elaborately finished, those outside more relaxed and somewhat looser in execution—do not apply here; no such shadings of difference can be observed among the three QAM albums, which seem midway in style between the stiffness and formality of Academy productions and the more humanized and expressive qualities that "outside" works typically display. A strong likelihood is that this painter worked within the palace environment for a clientele that included both the emperor himself and other high-level Manchu patrons, most probably princes. The three albums, along with others unknown, would then belong to a still unrecognized and unstudied interchange between a somewhat clandestine, informal production of paintings done for the Manchu emperors and a closely related production, much of it by the same artists, done for Manchu princely households by painters they supported.

The figures that occupy the domestic scenes in these albums are not portrayed as Manchu nobility; the mature men wear scholar's caps, and the women are in Han Chinese dress. Like virtually all other high-level Chinese erotic albums, these present the imagined world of a rich and powerful Han Chinese household, not unlike, except in their open practice of sex, the Jia family household in the novel Hong Lou Meng—or, earlier and closer in that respect, the household of Ximen Qing in Jin Ping Mei. Both novels were well known and enjoyed in the Manchu court. Erotic pictures made for the emperors and princes portrayed, then, not their own situations but this Han Chinese romantic-erotic ideal, the same that the Manchu emperors also enjoyed in some of the paintings by artists they had brought into the court from the Jiangnan cities. Pictures of these kinds, made outside the system of proper court Academy painting, escaped to some degree the formality that ruled there, permitting them to take on some of the more engaging qualities that "outside" pictures offered.


In recognizing this difference in expressive effect we move closer to making an informed appraisal and placing of the paintings of our group. Any clearer defining of the levels of patronage for which they were done must await further research and the uncovering of more evidence; for now we can only suggest again that it was outside, but closely related to, the imperial Academy, and most probably included princely households. And we can begin to correlate the expressive distinctions among the paintings with this inside/outside pattern.

The restrictions within which the proper Academy masters worked can be further revealed by a comparison of two closely related works, both large compositions portraying Qianlong and his consorts and sons celebrating the New Year's holiday.[lxiii] One, which must be the finished and accepted version, bears an inscription with the date 1738 and the names of the artists: Lang Shining, Chen Mei, Tangdai, and three others. The other painting, uninscribed, is very probably an earlier version by more or less the same group that was rejected (but, untypically, preserved), and the differences between them allow us to speculate on what the emperor found unacceptable in the original picture. There he is placed further off center, located within a strong perspectival recession that draws the viewer's attention away from him, and is shown looking down fondly at a squirming baby in his lap while striking a sounding stone with a mallet to amuse the child. The finished, accepted version eliminates this charming anecdotal touch, portraying Qianlong sitting stiffly upright, holding only a lingzhi fungus and looking straight out of the picture. It also reduces the perspectival pull and moves the emperor closer to center.

To turn from both these to the family New Year's picture in our group (Fig. 4) will dramatize strikingly the inside-outside difference: the "outside" picture is full of activity, of anecdotal and human-interest detail, to a degree unthinkable within the Academy.[lxiv] This is especially true of the left section, where the women of the household look after the younger children (detail, Fig. 16); they are exempted from the dignified demeanor that the father and older sons necessarily display. The young woman holding up the baby at far left, her face turned mostly away from us, is especially affecting, with her slightly parted lips, her concerned look.

The other paintings of our group exhibit, in different ways and degrees, the same qualities. In the Freer painting (Fig. 1) it is tender love, conveyed, despite the expressionless faces of the lovers, in their exchange of looks, their postures, the play of fingers and flower in their hands. The "Liu Yin" meiren painting (Fig. 2) projects an open appeal and sensuality that Jin Tingbiao's pin-up for Qianlong (Fig. 13) lacks. Even the Indianapolis Guanyin (Fig. 3) projects a quasi-secular seductiveness (which is, to be sure, an attribute of one manifestation of the bodhisattva, in which she used her sexual lures to bring about men's spiritual transformation and conversion to Buddhist faith.)[lxv] And the leaves of the "Leng Mei" album (Fig. 5), as would become clear if more of them were reproduced and discussed here, are witty and evocative, inviting narrative-like readings of the indelicate scenes they present. Similar expressive qualities can be found in the best of southern city artists' works; now, by way of earlier northern masters such as Jiao Bingzhen and Cui Hui who must have learned them from Jiangnan painters and paintings, they have been absorbed into the northern school, where they enjoy a final flowering.


Fig. 13. Jin Tingbiao (act. ca. 1757-1767), "Lady Putting Flowers in Her Hair." Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 222.7 x 130.7 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing.

It is significant that many of the surviving paintings of this kind are found in old foreign collections, acquired by early, "naive" collectors who had not yet learned the more refined, literati- and brushwork-oriented tastes of cultivated Chinese. If we more recent enthusiasts have failed to recognize the pleasures these paintings offer, it is because we have been indoctrinated by our readings of Chinese writings, and by observing the reactions of Chinese connoisseurs to such paintings, into believing the older kind of response to be inappropriate and low-class—a learned attitude that needs to be reconsidered.

The fast decline of court Academy painting from the late Qianlong era through the Jiaqing and beyond is painfully apparent in the less skilled drawing and repetitiveness of works produced by court artists of those later periods.[lxvi] The same decline can be assumed to have beset academic-style painting outside the court, since really capable artists would have been recruited if they had been available. No evidence known to me, moreover, indicates any healthy continuation of such painting into the 19th century. Brilliant and moving figure paintings would still be done, by such masters as Ren Xiong and Ren Bonian, but they would be in other styles. The paintings of our group stand, then, as the last significant manifestations of a long and, for its late phases, badly under-appreciated tradition.


My writings and lectures of recent years have sometimes ended with an apologia, renouncing any claim to having "proven my case," acknowledging a too-frequent use of such qualifiers as "probably" and "presumably." These studies have been made in the hope that the hypotheses and tentative formulations they offer can be put on more solid ground (or altered or contradicted) in future by further archival and other research. Meanwhile, I have been inclined to venture incautiously into areas of painting for which the visual evidence is strong, the archival or written evidence scanty, in the hope of bringing some initial order into those areas. They contain some of the most interesting of surviving Chinese paintings, and are in danger of remaining, otherwise, in limbo status for a long time. The foregoing study is another of that kind.

[i] Well discussed in Lawton, Chinese Figure Painting, no. 15, 84-7. But see also Stuart, “Two Birds with the Wings of One," 25-28; Stuart calls into question the usual identification of subject, arguing that the work may be only a generic scholar-and-beauty scene.

[ii] First published in Cahill, ed., The Restless Landscape, no. 82; it was later the subject of an article by Robert Maeda, “The Portrait of a Woman”, Archives of Asian Art, vol.  XXVII (1973-74), 46-52. The misidentifications of subject, date, and authorship are accepted in both publications.

[iii] Published in Marsha Weidner, ed., Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850 (Lawrence, Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art and Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1994) no. 50, 162-4, with a brief, perceptive text by Gary Baura.

[iv]Yonezawa, Shin-ga Taji Tu.  

[v]For color reproductions of all eight leaves, see Moss, The Literati Mode, no. 22.

[vi] In Ostasiatische Zeitschrift vol. 1, 1912, 58.  Physical evidence that the Sackler Museum picture has been cut down and altered can be seen in a faint shadow of the expunged round window in upper right, and marks remaining from furniture cut away on both edges. I am grateful to Robert Mowry for reporting the outcome of his detailed examination of the work.

[vii] I acquired the old photo from the estate of Archibald Wenley, Director of the Freer Gallery of Art, upon his death in 1962; he must have received it from the Shanghai dealer E. A. Strehlneek, whose writing is on the back, during his early years in China. Included is the price: "Mex. $950." Both this painting and the previous one are dealt with at greater length in my book-in-press, see following note.

[viii]Publication of this book has been long delayed by the serious curtailment of the series project for which it was originally written, "The Culture and Civilization of China." The book is in the hands of Yale University Press, and will presumably be published by them. Since, however, it will not appear soon, I have lifted a few passages from the book for this essay.

[ix]A presumably early work by Leng Mei representing two foreign-looking men, one with tilted, foreshortened face, watching a boy atop an illusionistically shaded elephant, appears to link him with the Cui Zizhong style; see Zhongguo Huihua Quanji , v. 27, pl.170.

[x]A good example is Jiao Bingzhen's twelve-leaf album of "Occupations of Palace Ladies" in the Palace Museum, Beijing; see Nie Chongzheng, comp., Gugong Bowuyuan, 1. The possibility that the "Arranging Flowers" painting was in a princely collection is strengthened by an inscription on the Japanese box claiming that the work was once owned by the Xuantong Emperor (r. 1908-1912).

[xi]A small, imaginary seated portrait of Li Qingzhao in the Palace Museum, Beijing. See Zhongguo Meishu Quanji, vol. 10, pl. 108.

[xii] See Gugogn . . .  Shinu, 38.

[xiii] Rawski, The Last Emperors, 120 ff.

[xiv] Rogers, "Court Painting, 306; the discussion of patronage 306-10.

[xv] Much information about Luo Ping"s patrons in Beijing is in Karlsson, Luo Ping. On the commercialization of painting in Yangzhou in this period, including or even especially that in the "eccentric" styles, see Hsü, A Bushel of Pearls,

[xvi] Chung, Drawing Boundaries, 58.

[xvii]Murck, "Yuan Jiang", 230.

[xviii] The first is Zhang Geng, Guochao Huazheng Lu; the second, anonymous, is Huaren Buyi. Both are cited in Murck, "Yuan Jiang," 229. See also Chung, Drawing Boundaries, 68, where the various theories, including Nie Chongzheng's, are reviewed.

[xix] Yang Boda. “The Development of the Ch'ien-lung Painting Academy” ,335-36.

[xx] Murck, "Yuan Jiang", 230.

[xxi]Cahill, "Yuan Chiang and His School," Part II, 208-9.

[xxii] See Zhongguo Gongting Huihua Nianbiao, 40-42.

[xxiii] The paintings are reproduced in Nie, Gugong Bowuyuan, nos. 39-44, and in Nie, comp., Qingdai Gongting, nos. 10-20 (occupying 66 pages). They make up all but one   the paintings in both volumes from the Yongzheng period. More—many more?--are in the Beijing Palace Museum collection, unpublished; three large-scale scrolls if this kind produced under Yongzheng are mentioned in Wei Dong, "Qing Imperial 'Genre Painting'", 19.  The series “Portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor in the Twelve Months” (Nie, Gongting Huihua, 20), twelve large, elaborate hanging scrolls of palace buildings and figures, particularly suggest the possible participation of Yuan Jiang.

[xxiv] It is true that I have argued, in a published article and in my forthcoming book, that the figures in some of these appear to be in the manner of the Yangzhou master Zhang Zhen and perhaps his son Zhang Weibang. But this is a matter of local and family style, not individual hand. The article is Cahill, “The Three Zhangs"

[xxv]Krahl, 243. A welcome break with a general reluctance to recognize the dullness of a great deal of Qing Academy painting is Souren Melikian's review of this Three Emperors exhibition, which appeared in The International Herald Tribune, February 17, 2006 under the title "A Show Heavy on China, Light on Art." As an outsider to Chinese art, Melikian wonders how the Qing emperors, themselves accomplished calligraphers and (especially Qianlong) connoisseurs of antique paintings, can have tolerated paintings of the kind shown in this exhibition--the work, as he sees it, of "anonymous hacks who had little in common with the great masters of Chinese painting" and whose pictures are "worthy forerunners of the posters of {Chairman] Mao as the Great Helmsman." He understandably goes wrong on several issues, but points up the need for more discerning and critical writing about Qing court painting by us specialists, writings willing to distinguish, however unfashionably, between paintings as art and pictures as visual records.

[xxvi] Rogers, "Court Painting," 308.

[xxvii] Zhongguo Gongting Huihua Nianbiao, 40-41.

[xxviii] On these, see Cahill "The Three Zhangs”.

[xxix] Yang Boda, "Development of the Ch'ien-lung Painting Academy", 338.

[xxx] Yang Boda, "Leng Mei"; also Nie, "Jiao Bingzhen, Leng Mei, 59.

[xxxi] Zhongguo Gongting Huihua Nianbiao, 41; Rogers, "Court Painting," 307.

[xxxii] The 1730 painting exists on two versions. One, which was sold in a Sotheby's Hong Kong auction, Important Classical Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, October 29, 2000, no. 31, is presently in a U.S. private collection; the other, unpublished so far as I know, is in the Nanjing Museum. These correspond too closely to be both by the artist, and we must assume an original-and-copy relationship. For the 1735 painting see Kaikodo Journal XV, January 2000, no. 18, with an article by Howard Rogers. This painting was previously in the Fujii Yurinkan, Kyoto.

[xxxiii] In the writings cited in note 30. An English summary of their findings is in Brown and Chou, Heritage of the Brush, 76.

[xxxiv]See Rogers, "Court Painting," 307. The original painting has not survived; the composition can be seen in a well-known woodblock-printed version and in a copy made by Qianlong-era court artists. For the first scroll of the latter, no less than 37 m. long, see Rawski and Rawson, China: The Three Emperors, no. 24.

[xxxv]Reproduced in Nie, Gugong Bowuyuan, pl. 3:1-10.

[xxxvi]Wakeman, The Fall of Imperial China, 95-96.

[xxxvii]Nie, "Jiao Bingzhen, Leng Mei" 59. An album by Leng Mei dated to 1735 and bearing seals with names used by Prince Bao before his enthronement leads Nie to speculate that Leng may have stayed with him for part of his time outside the court academy.

[xxxviii] Zhongguo Gongting Huihua Nianbiao, 42; Yang Boda, "The Development of the Ch'ien-lung Painting Academy, 348.

[xxxix] Ars Asiatica IX, 55.

[xl]Cahill, The Painter's Practice, 102-12.

[xli]For Leng Jian, see Yang, “Development of the Ch’ien-lung Painting Academy,” 345, also Yang Xin, "Court Painting," 346.  Nie Chongzhen (personal communication) believes that Leng Quan was probably another son of Leng Mei.  For a painting of palace ladies by Leng Quan, see Guo and Zhang, eds. pl. 108.

[xlii] Yang, "Development of the Ch'ien-lung Painting Academy", 333-356.  See also Nie Chongzheng’s essay on the Academy under the Qing, in his Qingdai Gongting, 1-24 (Chinese) and 25-27 (English summary); this reference on 5.

[xliii]Hearn, “Document and Portrait". An important late Ming predecessor to these court-produced collaborative handscrolls has recently been identified: see Wu Meifeng. Wu argues convincingly, with stylistic comparisons, that Ding Yunpeng (1547-1625 or after) was one of a group of artists who produced, at the court of the Wan-li Emperor (r. 1573-1620), probably around 1683, two long handscrolls, now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, representing two imperial outings. (The English title and summary mistakenly give the artist's name as Ding Guanpeng.)

[xliv] Hearn, "Document and Portrait," 118.

[xlv] Christie's Hong Kong, 28 April, 1996, The Imperial Sale, lot 65.

[xlvi] Yang Boda, "Development of the Ch'ien-lung Painting Academy," 341.

[xlvii] Hearn, "Document and Portrait," 119.

[xlviii] Cahill, "The Orthodox Movement."

[xlix][xlix] Some leaves reproduced in China: Treasures and Splendors, no. 130.

[l] Yu Jianhua, 719. For the finished scroll painted by Ding Guanpeng and others, see Nie, Gongting Huihua, 75. Clarifying the relationship between these two projects requires research that is beyond the scope of this paper. Zhongguo Gongting Huihua Nianbiao 49 states that Xu Pu painted a Zhigong Tu, and left the academy, in 1770. Again, I do not know whether this refers to the same project or a separate one. This is the only indication I have found that Xu Pu served in the academy at all. For a fuller account of the production of the Zhigong Tu scrolls, see Wei Dong, 22-24.

[li] See Elman. "Social Roles of Literati", 366. The other three are Men Qing'an (Yu Jianhua, 565, a Han bannerman); Sun Daru (Yu Jianhua, 678), a figure specialist; and Dai Yuji (Yu Jianhua, 1451). Men and Dai were graduates of the Imperial College.

[lii]Hummel, ed., 2, 728-29, entry for Tsai-ch'ûan.

[liii] Two authorities on Qing imperial history to whom this question was put, Harold Kahn and Evelyn Rawski, both responded that it was possible in principle, but neither of them had encountered any case of it. Other paintings raise this question, e.g. an album of twelve scenes of unidentified places by Jiao Bingzhen, signed chen Jiao Bingzhen gonghui but devoid of imperial seals: see Christie's Hong Kong, Fine Classical Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, May 30, 2005, no. 1044.

[liv] See Nie, Gongting Huihua, 45. These are discussed in my Pictures for Use and Pleasure.

[lv] Examples are in Nie, Gongting Huihua, 12.1 and 12.5, for Yongzheng, and Ibid. 59, for Qianlong.

[lvi] For these, see Nie, Gugong Bowuyuan, 41-42, also Rawski and Rawson, 173. An old misidentification of them as "The Twelve Consorts of the Yongzheng Emperor" was corrected in an article by Zhu Jiajin, "Guan yu Yongzheng". Seals and inscriptions on several of them—written and impressed as though on surfaces within the paintings—bear names used by Yongzheng before his enthronement, and date the works to the late Kangxi era.

[lvii] See for examples Nie, Gugong Bowuyuan, 110-114, four paintings that serve well to demonstrate his versatility. All these others bear inscriptions and seals of the emperor.

[lviii] Yanqin yiqing "Intimate Scenes of Leisurely Love." Some leaves from it are reproduced by R. H. van Gulik, Erotic Colour Prints, 155-6 and Pl.V-VI; and his Sexual Life in Ancient China, pl. XVI-XVII, both with an absurd attribution to Qiu Ying. Also in Beurdeley et al., 61, 66, 67, 71.

[lix] Sotheby's New York, June 18, 1983, Fine Chinese Paintings, no. 11. Fortunately, I made slides from all the twelve leaves before it was sold. These albums are discussed also in Cahill, ""The Emperor's Erotica," and in greater detail in my forthcoming book.

[lx] Naishi xingle, “Pleasures of the Age”

[lxi] For these, see Cahill, "Where Did the Nymph Hang?"; also the correction note in Cahill, "The Emperor's Erotica", 40-41. The entire series has been reproduced as Qinggong Zhencang Bimei Tu.

[lxii]The albums of Jin Ping Mei illustrations are said to have been looted from the (Shenyang?) palace by Zhang Zuolin in the 1920s and owned later by his son Zhang Xueliang, who reportedly took them to Taiwan during the Nationalist exodus in 1948; two groups of leaves from the series have indeed surfaced, and been sold, recently in Taiwan. There is a strong possibility that Albums QAM A and QAM C have had more or less the same recent history. A disinclination among collectors to publicize their erotic holdings makes tracing them difficult.

[lxiii]Nie, Gugong Bowuyuan, 50 (inscribed) and 59 (uninscribed); the latter also in Rawski and Rawson, no. 16. These paintings are discussed at greater length in my unpublished Pictures for Use and Pleasure.

[lxiv] A trompe-l'oeil perspectival wall painting in the Yucuixuan of the Ningshougong in the Imperial Palace portrays an interior with a consort, her maid, and playing children in an informal and naturalistic manner quite unlike the Academy style; this, too, appears to belong to a special mode of production within the court, meant for the intimate enjoyment of the emperor and those close to him. See Nie Hui, fig. 3.

[lxv] Chün-fang Yü, “Guanyin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokiteshvara," esp. pp. 166-69, "Guanyin As Seductress." This theme is further explored by Yü in her Kuan-yin, 421 ff. This quality in the Guanyin painting is recognized by Gary Baur in his catalog entry, see fn. 3.

[lxvi] For a selection of these, see Nie, Gugong Bowuyuan, 135-51.

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