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CLP 44: 2001 Lecture given at Univ. of Pennsylvania

Five Rediscovered Ming-Qing Paintings in the University of Pennsylvania Museum


The strengths of the University of Pennsylvania Museum in works of Chinese art are usually considered, and rightly so, to lie elsewhere than in painting. Just what these strengths are is revealed in other articles in this special issue. Good and important Chinese paintings in the collection are not, however, quite so few as has been thought. This brief piece will introduce five that merit attention and publication, out of about a dozen paintings worthy of note that I saw in a viewing in the Museum’s storage room in April of last year (see Appendix.) The viewing was undertaken without high hopes, in the face of reports of earlier visits by specialists in the field who had gone through the same works and found nothing of interest. I did not by any means see all the Chinese paintings in the collection, and further “rediscoveries” are presumably still to be made. I am grateful to Professor Nancy Steinhardt and to the Keeper of the Asian Collection, Jennifer Lane White, for their help in arranging the viewing and for furnishing me with information afterwards.

The five paintings to be discussed came to the museum in two group purchases in 1915 and 1916. The first (C94), by the Ming master Wang E, and the second (C91), with an old attribution to the Song artist Jiang Shen, were part of a 1915 purchase of eight paintings from the New York dealer C. T. Loo; these two, and probably others of the group, had been owned by the great Shanghai collector Pang Yuanji (1864-1949). The other three were part of a 1916 purchase of thirty paintings from another New York dealer, M. Knoedler & Co., and again were from a Shanghai collection, that of John C. Ferguson.

The paintings all belong, then, to a large and loosely definable category of works that entered collections in the U.S. (and Europe) in the first two decades of the twentieth century through a particular route: from some Shanghai dealer or collector-dealer, sometimes by way of a U.S. dealer who acted as agent, to the American (or European) museum or private collector. The Shanghai sources included, besides John C. Ferguson and Pang Yuanji, the dealer E. A. Strehlneek, whose two catalogs of Chinese paintings, one published in 1914 and the other undated but later (published for an auction of his holding held in Tokyo), contain quite a few fine works that have since turned up in U.S. collections. The paintings that came through this route mostly have in common two sets of characteristics: they are impressive enough in their finished styles and seeming age, and appealing enough in their subjects, to be attractive to foreign collectors of that time; and they do not belong to the kinds of paintings that would have been prestigious acquisitions for Chinese collectors, who on the whole followed the admonitions of traditionally-minded critics about what were “good” paintings and what were “bad.” The paintings were thus of small value in China, but were acceptable to foreign buyers who had not yet absorbed enough of Chinese tastes to pursue “better” pieces (on Chinese terms), and were not yet sure enough in their judgments to pay the higher prices that such works commanded. The paintings, moreover, mostly carried false attributions, often supported with “signatures,” to famous early masters, or claims of early date (“unknown artist of the Song period” is typical.) And in the case of figure paintings, they are frequently misrepresented in subject as well: a generic beautiful-woman (meiren) painting will be called a portrait of some famous woman of antiquity; a generic picture of a scholarly gathering is said to represent the court of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong (as is the case with two of the University of Pennsylvania Museum paintings, C116, discussed below as a work by Yuan Jiang, and C114, see Appendix.) Good Chinese connoisseurs could see through these deceptions, and consigned the works to the category of “forgeries,” not worthy of inclusion in any serious collection.

One might predict, as the outcome of such a situation, the acquisition of lots of junky paintings by foreign buyers with under-developed eyes. But one would be wrong. Freer’s eye, by the time he was collecting Chinese paintings seriously, was quite highly developed, even though, like others of his time, he knew next to nothing about the history of Chinese painting and could not have distinguished a genuine Dong Qichang from a fake, or appreciated a good one if he had seen it. The paintings that the foreign buyers were offered and purchased were in the more conservative, representational styles, in which individual hands were not the chief desiderata; the values they recognized and pursued were not seriously diminished by misattributions and misdatings. The paintings they collected included Ming academy and Zhe-school works ascribed to Song masters, figural and functional works of kinds considered low-class in China, and other rejected categories--which would be much more poorly represented today among the extant body of works if they had not been thus “rescued.” For a parallel, we can think of so-called Chan or Zen painting, a major category for us but one that was not valued by Chinese collectors, and that would be all but lost today if it were not for the fortunate chance of its preservation in Japan. (The parallel is of course imperfect: many works of the types acquired by pioneer western collectors are preserved also, similarly misattributed, in the National Palace Museum collection in Taiwan, and many more no doubt remain in China, unpublished because they are ignored by Chinese scholars who go through collections there separating “authentic works” from those they judge to be “fakes” or insignificant. But the foreign holdings are still a major source for them, especially for figure paintings of “vulgar” kinds.)

It has been the task, still far from finished, of scholars of my generation and later ones to re-assess and sometimes reattribute these paintings, an exciting project that can sometimes have the effect of adding a first-class piece to the collection. I was myself engaged in it during my years at the Freer, in the fifties and early sixties, and others have been doing valuable work of this kind more recently, notably Richard Barnhart with his discoveries in the DuBois Schanck Morris Collection at Princeton and elsewhere. (For an account of this project, see Barnhart’s “The Archaeology of Early Ming Painting,” in Barnhart et. al., Painters of the Great Ming: The Imperial Court and the Zhe School, Dallas, 1993, pp. 5-18.) The book I am presently writing (Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China) depends in large part on many such rediscoveries and reattributions of paintings in old collections outside China. The viewing at the University of Pennsylvania Museum last year was undertaken in the hope of finding more paintings useful to this project. In that respect it was a disappointment, but not in others; the five paintings introduced here will attest to that.

The first (C94. fig. 1) is a signed, reliable, and fine work by Wang E (ca. 1462-after 1541; for information on him and other works by him, see Barnhart, Painters of the Great Ming, pp. 260-265.) It bears his signature (simply “Wang E”) and a seal reading Wang shi Tingzhi. Within the tentative chronology proposed by Barnhart, this would seem to belong stylistically in his later period, after 1510. The subject is conventional enough: two scholar-gentlemen sprawl comfortably on a ledge by a rushing stream, with a waterfall seen in a ravine behind them, crossed by a natural bridge. One of the men gazes upward into the mist, the other backward; the boy servant, holding the staff of one of them, looks down into the water (detail, fig. 2.) Two rolled scrolls and one partly unrolled, along with a wrapped qin, lie on the ground. The composition is dominated and divided by a pair of stately pine trees growing on a dark, rocky knoll in the foreground. The devices of having the cliff appear to overhang the picture space, but concealing it in mist to avoid any topheavy effect, and of making the trees stand out sharply against a misty middleground, are taken from late Song painting, as seen notably in the works of Liang Kai and such pictures as the anonymous Traveler in a Winter Landscape (see Cahill, The Lyric Journey: Poetic Painting in China and Japan, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996, fig. 1.54, 1.58, 1.59.) Wang E’s understanding of these Song techniques underpins his Ming sensibility to produce a strong, handsome picture of more originality than might at first appear.

Another high-quality Ming painting in the group purchased from the Pang Yuanji Collection is an anonymous “Landscape with Rainstorm” (C91, fig. 3). The old attribution is to Jiang Shen or Jiang Guandao (ca. 1190-1138), a landscapist in the Dong Yuan-Juran tradition; the attribution seems more or less arbitrary, since the painting shows no stylistic resemblance to extant works attributed more plausibly to Jiang. It probably dates to around the same time as the Wang E, the early 16th century, and similarly belongs to a late phase of the Zhe School. I cannot associate it convincingly by style with any painter of that time; it has certain affinities with the Anhui master Wang Zhao or Wang Haiyun (for whom see Barnhart, op. cit., p. 322), but they are not strong enough to support an attribution. It exhibits more coherence as a composition and more assurance in execution, including nuances of ink tonality used for rendering masses of vegetation at successive planes of depth in the rainy atmosphere, than do paintings by Wang Zhao or most other late Zhe-school artists. A man is seen in the open room of a house in center right looking out into the storm (detail, fig. 4), a motif known elsewhere in Ming painting, notably in Zhou Chen’s North Sea handscroll in the Nelson-Atkins Gallery, Kansas City (see Cahill, Parting At the Shore, cover and fig. 84). Below, a ferryman poles his boat away from the bank; beyond, hilltops loom over the fog. The sensitivity with which all this is handled, and the dramatic force of the scene, earn the painting a place alongside the Zhou Chen scroll and Lü Wenying’s River Village in a Rainstorm in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Barnhart, op. cit., cat. 83) among the finest stormy landscapes from the Ming period. It is, moreover, the one among them that most successfully recaptures the softness and subtleties of atmospheric rendering from late Song painting.

These two works, as noted earlier, are part of a group purchase of eight paintings made in 1915, some if not all from the Pang Yuanji Collection. Pang had sent a large group of paintings, all for sale, to the World Panama Exhibition in San Francisco in that year; his assistant (and presumably relative) Pang Zanchen was in the U.S. to arrange the sales, using as advertising a specially-printed catalog, Biographies of Famous Chinese Paintings from the Private Collections of Mr. L. C. P’ang, Chekiang China (Shanghai, 1915.) Freer bought thirty-three paintings from Pang in 1915-16, and his friends Eugene and Agnes Meyer and Louise Havemeyer bought others; the Meyer purchases were later to come to the Freer. (I am grateful to Thomas Lawton for some of this information.) The University of Pennsylvania Museum’s group may well have been recommended by Freer, who by this time was Pang’s friend. Freer’s comments on the two works discussed above (“Excellent” for the Wang E, “Delightful” for the other) are preserved in the Museum records. The two paintings are listed as no. 20, p. 47, and no. 52, p. 111, in Pang’s Biographies catalog. During the 1930s and early 1940s the Freer Gallery bought again from Pang, now through the dealer C. F. Yau of Tonying & Co. in New York; the purchases this time were a dozen important Yuan-Ming paintings, mostly handscrolls, which are now among the treasures of the Gallery. (One winces to see what was offered but turned down: for one, Qian Xuan’s “Dwelling in the Floating Jade Mountains” handscroll now in the Shanghai Museum, rejected by the then-director John Ellerton Lodge because it was, in his opinion, too cluttered with inscriptions and seals.)

The remaining three paintings can, I believe, be attributed by style to particular masters, two of them active in the early 16th century, the other mainly in the early 18th. All were part of the group purchase from Knoedler & Co., and came from the collection of John C. Ferguson. Ferguson was not a dealer, but sold paintings from his collection on occasion, or served as go-between for Chinese collectors who wanted to sell. In 1915-16 he had just returned to China, to accept a government advisory post, after a brief move to the U.S.; he may have needed money to finance these moves. He had given a number of important Chinese objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1913. (See Thomas Lawton’s article on him in Orientations for March, 1996; also Lawton’s A Time of Transition: Two Collectors of Chinese Art, Lawrence, Kansas, 1991.)

The third painting of our group (C127, fig. 5), variously titled in the Museum records “Searching for Truth” and “Landscape with Philosophers” and catalogued as “artist unknown,” can be confidently attributed to Zhou Chen (d. after 1535)--the mountains and rocks, the trees, the figures and architecture, all belong firmly within his style. The composition is also typical: an entry in foreground between dark, rocky masses; a middleground in which figures and buildings are situated; steep peaks with slanting tops in the background. The execution is in Zhou’s tighter manner, in the tradition of Li Tang, rather than in the more cursive, fast-running brushwork he uses in some other paintings. The real subject (forgetting truth and philosophers, interpretations toward which western viewers of Chinese paintings in Freer’s time were powerfully drawn) is a summer gathering of old friends in the retirement house of one of them. The host and his first-to-arrive guest sit outside at a stone table beneath trees, playing weiqi, fanned by a boy servant (detail, fig. 6); another servant inside the house prepares pots of wine for the later, heavy-drinking stage of the party. A second guest enters the scene in the foreground, also holding a feather fan and accompanied by a servant carrying the customary wrapped qin.

The fourth painting (C122, fig. 7) is attributed to Ma Yuan in the purchase record and titled, through the same spiritualizing inflation, “A Gathering of Philosophers.” It can be re-attributed by style to Zhou Chen’s sometime disciple Tang Yin (1470-1523) and retitled “Visiting a Friend in His Mountain Retreat.” Like the Zhou Chen work, we can with confidence assign it, not just to “school of the master” but to his hand: again, every element in it can be matched in reliably signed works by Tang Yin. And again, the distant source of the style is in the paintings of Li Tang. Zhou Chen and Tang Yin, along with Zhou’s other notable pupil Qiu Ying, were most successful among Ming artists in transforming this landscape type into sleek mountain scenes with houses and figures that evoked for their Suzhou contemporaries the ideal of elegant seclusion. The scholar-recluse in this one looks out from the open upper storey of his house (detail, fig. 8), with two boy servants standing alert behind him, ready to respond to whatever wish he may conceive. A scholar’s rock, an archaic bronze, and a ceramic ewer on the table nearby testify to his taste. The visitor approaches across a bridge, followed by his boy servant who leads the horse. An older man, poorly clothed, climbs the path in lower left, with a wine gourd on a pole over his shoulder; he is probably a servant sent to fetch wine. (The old notes characteristically identify him as “a pilgrim.”) The original attribution to Ma Yuan may have to do with the diagonally divided composition and the pair of pine trees that act as a counter-diagonal, besides echoing the V-shaped cleavage of the foreground rocks.

The last painting to be introduced here (C116, fig. 9), originally attributed to an unknown Song artist, is really a fine work by the early Qing Yangzhou painter Yuan Jiang (active 1691-1756)--or possibly by his son? (the relationship is unclear) Yuan Yao--their styles are often difficult to distinguish. The subject was said by John C. Ferguson, from whose collection it came, to be the palace of the eighth century emperor Tang Xuanzong, but it appears instead to be a sumptuous mansion belonging to some rich and powerful official. The owner, whatever his station, is seen sitting in the open room near the exact center of the composition, wearing a red coat and scholar-official’s cap (detail, fig. 10). His teen-age son, also wearing such a cap (presumably to indicate his intended career) stands next to him, and a younger child is held by a nursemaid. A number of girls and women around him may be daughters and wives, with their servants. The occasion of the gathering might be his birthday, or New Year’s; the season, early spring, is announced by the flowering trees. Other scholar-officials are seen roaming the galleries and pavilions of the spacious grounds; several of them at left are listening to a woman play a flute in an upstairs room. What the painting depicts is not any particular personage or place, but an ideal, imagined event, the dream of any aspiring official. It may well have been intended for presentation to such a person by colleagues to wish him success in attaining the prosperous and illustrious status that the picture celebrates.

All the above is admittedly an exercise in an old-fashioned but still necessary kind of connoisseurship. These five paintings, once they are identified properly in date and authorship, can assume honorable places in the generally accepted canon of Chinese painting; they will augment slightly, without altering, our histories. The larger and more difficult task, and ultimately the more important, is to enlarge the canon, expanding our tastes and tolerance to allow the incorporation into it of kinds of paintings now rejected for reasons of subject and style and function, reasons somewhat apart from judgments of quality (which of course must continue to be made.) Both projects require that we continue to pursue, along with other concerns, a visual and stylistic approach to Chinese painting, and that we do it with ever-increasing knowledge and discernment. Otherwise the arguments we construct, however impressive in their deployment of non-visual methodologies, will be built on sand.

Appendix

Other paintings seen in our viewing, of lesser but not negligible interest, include:

- (C245) A large painting by Huang Yingshen dated 1673 “at age 76.” Huang served as court painter under the Shunzhi Emperor and was clearly affected by European style; in these respects he forms a kind of bridge between Wu Bin in the late Ming and Jiao Bingzhen in the early Qing. See the article on him by Nie Chongzhen in Gugong bowuyuan yuankan, 1992 no. 4, pp. 26-30.

- (C125) A painting of Laozi by Li Fan, a native of Huating active in the mid-18th century; for other works by him see Siren, Chinese Painting, vol.VII, p. 350.

- (C114) An anonymous painting of a scholarly gathering, probably based on an older model, by some Ming master.

- (C431) A painting of a female immortal, probably Lan Caihe, unsigned, but judging from the style, by some Yangzhou artist active in the early 18th century.

- Several interesting bird-and-flower pictures on which I did not take notes.

In addition, three Chinese paintings were on view in the galleries on the day I was there: a painting of a horse and groom attributed to Zhao Mengfu; the well-known anonymous Ming version of the left half of the “Emperor Minghuang’s Flight to Shu” composition; and a handscroll depicting arhats, painted in gold on blue paper, with a signature of Qiu Ying dated 1548 and stating that it is based on a work by Li Gonglin.

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