Art Review Archives:
Splendors of China's Forbidden City:
The Field Museum of Natural History
If there is the hint of a smile curving the lips of the inaugural portrait of Qianlong used as the title image for this exhibition, it is well-deserved. Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong is an exhibition to savor, and the period it represents, the 60-year reign (1736-1766) of one of imperial China's most capable leaders, fascinates with the depth and richness of its offerings. Nearly 400 artifacts exhibit the structure and decoration of objects that stood as symbols of the power of the emperor, the type of paintings he commissioned and chose to have about him, and the articles of daily use of himself and his family within that mysterious and secluded realm, the private palace complex known as the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. This major exhibition will be on display at the Field Museum of Natural History through September 12, 2004. As the first time these items have left the Forbidden City, and the first time many of these have been placed on public view, ever, Splendors of China's Forbidden City is a rare opportunity to glimpse the inner workings of a period of imperial privilege, a vanished and exotic era; and in particular, to view a unique hybrid of Western and Eastern art: the talented works of Qianlong's primary court painter, the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione.
Qianlong's rule represented a peak in imperial China's economic and cultural prosperity. Ethnically, geographically, and religiously diverse, China's population expanded to an unprecedented 350 million during his fruitful reign, with imperial borders that stretched north and east to what are now present-day Russia and Tibet; south, to what is now India. Qianlong's grandfather, the emperor Kangxi, had begun the consolidation of this diverse China after the Manchu conquest; Yongzheng, Qianlong's father, continued that consolidation with economic reform. It was Qianlong, third in a line of capable leaders, who succeeded in integrating this diverse nation with its far-flung borders into a single empire. His deft administration alone was the hallmark of a complex man; and, remarkably, he was even more: skilled at the hunt, a literate and prolific poet, and a highly educated collector and connoisseur of art.
Splendors of China's Forbidden City focuses on five aspects of the emperor and his 60-year reign: the symbols of imperial authority he gathered about himself; his martial, Manchu side, steeped in horseback riding, hunting and a warrior's panoply, as well as his administrative achievements; items of daily use of the emperor and his 40 consorts; objects of his personal connoisseurship and pleasure, including jade carvings and calligraphy; and various objects, both personal and general, of the numerous religions supported by the Qing court. Though the scope of this offering may sound intimidating, this is a user-friendly exhibition, highly accessible and well-organized to lend context to the groupings of items.
From beginning to end the thematic movement is from the emperor's exterior and public aspects to his private, inner world. His exterior world was one of authority and achievement, and in the first gallery, across from two bright, monumental portraits of the emperor and his empress Xiaoxian, Qianlong's imposing dragon throne is displayed raised on a dais and complete with cranes and censers, a setting re-creating its placement in the Qianging Gong, the Mansion of Heavenly Splendor. Across from them, a hanging set of sixteen temple bells melds Oriental luxury and imperial fantasy: dragons and tassels and the hidden technological skill of sixteen different tones in the identical bells, done by varying the inner thickness of the bronze. That these displays of imperial magnificence had the hard reality of imperial correspondence behind them is intimated by the emperor's personal desk, attesting to imperial luxury and innovation in design (surprisingly modern with its turned-in legs), but even more to the everyday demands of administrative need, ceaseless, and integral to the success of Qianlong's reign. In its bamboo-handled brushes and the cake of crimson ink, a color reserved for the sole use of the emperor, it carries hints of the hard labor of ruling an empire. It took daily attention, and Qianlong worked diligently at paperwork every day, starting at 6:00 a.m. and finishing usually between 12:00-2:00 p.m., even during his frequent travels.
Despite the daily toil involved in the governance of his empire, Qianlong was also an artist and a prolific writer. "Few executives in any culture could have gotten through as much paperwork each year as did Qianlong," the exhibition catalogue notes, "and few professional writers can have matched his prodigious literary output, which included thousands of prose essays and more than forty thousand printed or otherwise published poems, many of them quite long." And though his literary achievements are not specifically represented in this exhibition, there are the arts -- the objects of considerable beauty the emperor gathered about him, particularly as a purposeful and knowledgeable connoisseur. His own lute, Qinglai ("Clear Sound"), is included, as well as a jade plate worth a city's ransom and a magnificent artwork carven from a single jade boulder, the second-largest such piece in the world. Qianlong showed his appreciation by writing poems about both, which were carved into the art objects to memorialize his approval.
In balance to these glimpses of a character deeply appreciative of beauty and fineness, the final main gallery features a collection of objects of a more intangible faith: artifacts of the religions of the Qing court. Some are items of personal worship of the emperor, including his magnificent cloisonné stupa, a six-foot object of devotion and contemplation rendered in gold and rich enamels -- imperial luxury applied to Tibetan Buddhism. Other items represent the various other religious faiths he supported in the ruling of this diverse kingdom, including Daoism and shamanism. Of particular interest are a pair of shamanistic deities or Kedun Nuoyan, representative of Mongolian spirit-worship, as well as an ornate costume for an imperial lama, lavish with luxe textiles and powerful symbols, neither of which have been on public display before.
If one dimension of the emperor is represented by the objects he chose to have about him, another is portrayed in the portraits of himself he commissioned, and of which he specifically approved. Splendors of China's Forbidden City includes fifteen paintings, primarily in tempera on silk. Nearly all are large along one or both dimensions -- 8'x6' monumental wall screens, or long trailing scrolls. Some are by native artists, including Ten Thousand Envoys Come to Pay Tribute (Color on silk: 126-3/4 x 48-3/8 in.: 1761) by an anonymous court artist, with its cast of hundreds including foreign envoys bringing elephants and leopards, and The Qianlong Emperor on his First Inspection Tour to the South, Scroll 12; Return to the Forbidden City by Xu Yang (Color on silk: 27-1/4 x 474-1/8 in.: 1770), with its 39-foot-long depiction of an imperial procession. And eight are rare glimpses into the work of a talented Italian who for half a lifetime was a primary painter in the Qing court: the Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione.
Castiglione's art is understated, naturalistic, his animals real and his people true to life. Working in the emperor's preferred medium, tempera on silk (Qianlong did not find oil paintings aesthetically pleasing), he produced a wide body of work whose detailed representation of nature, be it man or animal, couples innate, appealing liveliness with the crisp fidelity of natural-history illustration. It was this documentary quality that appealed to Qianlong, who found Castiglione's literal, yet artistic capturing of subjects to his taste. Castiglione's significant skill is evident in his application of Western styles of rendering to the medium of the tempera, particularly in representing the subtleties of drapery, its shine and folds, and in his remarkable ability to conjure depthful portraits from the proscriptions of the Qing court: eyes front, no shadows. He reveals, as well, a sure hand -- on the vast expanses of silk the medium admits of little or no correction, and even on the large-scale paintings he worked in minute details, often using a Chinese writing brush for the smallest strokes.
The paintings in Splendors of China's Forbidden City represent a combination of the emperor's pleasure, a documentation of the Qing court, and politic presentation. Three portraits in this exhibition serve as examples of both the various styles of portrayal of the emperor, and Castiglione's versatility. Portrait of the Qianlong emperor at the age of twenty-five (Color on silk: 95-3/8 x 70-1/2 in.: c. 1736) is a monumentally-sized formal portrait done at the time of Qianlong's inauguration as emperor. Ostensibly it shows the physical likeness of the emperor in regal attire. The image is filled with symbols of imperial authority: the bright saffron of his ceremonial robe is the color known as imperial yellow, reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor, and in lesser quantities, the royal family. That it is picked up also in various tints in the gold-lacquered throne and especially, the broad expanse of the background surrounds the image of the emperor with his own color of authority. The gilded, five-clawed dragon on his garment, and the specifics of the size and number of the freshwater pearls in his hat and the colors of semiprecious stones in his court necklace are further symbols of his supreme rank.
With the subtlety of a Holbein, Castiglione frames in this image the taut, complex likeness of an active young man. Qianlong was twenty-five at the time, the new inheritor of a stable, flourishing kingdom, eager to assume the throne. In this simple full-face portrait Castiglione reflects the young man's pride in his own competence, an absolute certainty of his ability to rule, a supreme pleasure of calm command. Compositionally, the painting is a massing of formal, imposing ornament in dizzying detail, the splendors of imperial magnificence condensed into a single person. The touches of white on the boots and along the edges of the skirts of his garment delineate a pyramid that draws the gaze upward, like a supplicant -- from the swirling fascinations of the dark richly-touched carpet, up through the gilded ferocity of the five-clawed dragons and all those expanses of damask silk in imperial yellow, to the focal point: that superbly capable, imperially unflappable face. A similar portrait, Portrait of Empress Xiaoxian in winter ceremonial robe (Color on silk: 76 x 46 in.: c. 1737) hangs nearby. Together they are an imposing pair.
To rule the unusual composition of Qianlong's empire required a delicate balancing act, an appeal to both the Manchu elite that were the ruling class of imperial China (Qianlong himself was Manchu), and the Han Chinese who formed the ethnic majority -- two groups with widely differing customs and values. Professor of Chinese history, Jonathan Spence notes that political equilibrium required the emperor to "strike a balance in which he reassured the Manchu nobles as to his martial vigor and political firmness on the one hand, and tried to convince the [Han] Chinese of his respect for their traditional culture on the other." Though Spence's reference is to Qianlong's grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, it applies equally well to Qianlong himself. In the images with which he surrounded himself, he appears, variously, as a hunter, facing down a tiger or bear, and as a man in the pursuit of more intellectual pleasures.
Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow (Color on silk: 12 x 46 in.: 1760s) extols the Manchu virtues of the hunt and Qianlong's skill at it. The horses are healthy, tireless; the stag a fleet quarry. Qianlong's heart shot, aimed from the saddle at full gallop, thumps home. He is dressed in plain brown, the practical garments of a horseback hunter. This is an intimately-sized painting, its dimensions, about 1'x4', signaling it as a personal keepsake. The horses and stag are well-observed and highly animated. Equines in particular appealed to the Manchu, longtime traditional horsemen, and Castiglione's spirited ponies are some of his most appealing creations. (In his large landscape work A Hundred Horses (1728), not included in this exhibition, no two are alike -- dapple and paint, black and bay, the hundred horses of the title scratch, graze, swim, play and roll in a work of delightful animal observation. Qianlong had challenged Castiglione with this commission and was greatly pleased with it.) With his remarkable faculty for detail, Castiglione invests Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow with hair-fine strokes, down to individual hairs on the two horses and a filament-fine threading of gold on the imperial bridle. The emperor's easy poise in the saddle and the calm concentration of his face bespeak a skilled hunter. In contrast to the monumental effect of the inaugural portrait, the vigorous forward movement of this composition imparts the excitement of the hunt.
As a further note, the partner who hands Qianlong the arrow in Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow, and provides witness to the skillful shot, is a woman. This subject of two hunters itself had appeared before in Chinese art, but to portray a female as the hunter's companion was without precedent. The curators of Splendors of China's Forbidden City, Chuimei Ho and Bennett Bronson, note the various theories that have been proposed as to her identity: that she is Qianlong's Muslim consort Rong Fei, or his daughter Princess Hexiao, both of whom enjoyed the hunt; or that she is a symbolic representation of qualities Qianlong admired, either generally, or in female companions specifically. In the end, we have no surety of whether she was actual, or symbolic -- only a tantalizing mystery in this informal, appealing work.
In contrast to the athletic, Manchu outdoorsmanship of Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow, Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather (Color on silk: 151x63 in.: c. 1738), a large-scale painting, presents a peaceful moment of familial celebration in Han Chinese style. Qianlong appears as a family man in this domestic scene, accompanied by two women and looking benevolently on as nine boys light firecrackers in the garden of a comfortable dwelling. Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather is a successful blending of Eastern and Western aesthetics, as evidenced in the contrast between the traditional ink-wash 'screens' of pine branches and ornamental stone framing the right side of the image, and the realistic architecture and individualized portraits of the twelve subjects. Castiglione invests the composition with overtones of comfortable stability. Solid, sheltering architecture, done in muted earth-tones, overhangs a peaceful courtyard in which the children throng, their colorful robes and animated activities enlivening the peaceful scene. The portraits here show Castiglione's economy in portraying a distinct likeness -- the facial expressions are both individual, and filled with considerable charm in this image of a contented, self-contained world. Appealing as it is, these scene is probably not based on an actual incident, but rather reflects a positioning and a portrayal of Qianlong as respectful of Han lifestyle. (Another deeply-felt Han value, that of intellectual pursuit, is reflected in Qianlong in his Study (Ink on paper: height 38-1/2 in.: before 1767), a collaborative effort between Castiglione and court artist Jin Tingbiao which presents Qianlong contemplating his subject as he prepares to compose a poem.)
Western perspective had long been based on truths of optical perception: the vanishing point, in which objects foreshorten based on their position and parallel lines converge toward a distant focal point. The Chinese tradition, on the other hand, created effects of depth through its own detailed rules. Dimension, lightness of shading, and layering were all applied in a visual system which allowed for different views of the same subject. Emperor Qianlong's Pleasure during Snowy Weather shows the hybrid effect when the two visual systems were combined: on the one hand, the solid, Western architecture; on the other, the pine branches and distant rooftops, here floating in a mist. In this case, the melding is subtle and harmonious. A lady of the Yongzheng emperor in Han Chinese costume (Color on silk: 76-3/8 x 38-9/16 in.: 1700-22), painted during the Yongzheng period by an anonymous court painter, offers a contrast: an earlier artist's less comfortable application of Western-style perspective. The artist is not at ease with the new mode, and the diagonals in this indoor scene create a sense of vertigo, in which everything seems to be slipping out of the picture into the viewer's lap. Castiglione himself tried to be an advocate of Western perspective. In their book Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit Painter in the Court of the Chinese Emperors, Cécile and Michel Buerdeley note that the Chinese
Although the appointment of a crown prince was a strict secret, not announced until after the current emperor's death in order to prevent factions and favoritism from forming around the royal sons, the painting Spring's Peaceful Message (Color on silk: length 27 in.: 1723-35), painted during the Yongzheng period, appears to depict the passage of power from then-emperor Yongzheng to Prince Hongli, the one individual of Yongzheng's ten sons who would become Emperor Qianlong. As Qianlong's regency would not have been known at the time it is a wonderment as to why this image was painted, at whose request, and who might have been permitted to view it. Like Taking A Stag With A Mighty Arrow, this grouping of an imperial father and adult son has no precedent in Chinese history. Further mystery is added by Castiglione's unusual choice of a solid color-field background, filling in the entire space behind the two subjects with a moody and somewhat overpowering blue that isolates the figures in their barren landscape and makes the slender stalks of light-green bamboo all but vibrate in their vivid tonal contrast. Though Castiglione was Yongzheng's court painter at the time, it is said that Qianlong greatly approved of this likeness of himself as a youth, adding imperial seals and a poem much later in life to show his appreciation.
The colors, aesthetic pleasure, and freshness of Castiglione's art make these selections of his work well worth seeing. Castiglione worked at the emperor's command, subsuming, by necessity, his personal preferences -- but his talent, quick eye, and sympathy for his subjects, both human and animal, continue to radiate from these accomplished works in tempera on silk. In a remarkable career he was Yongzheng's court painter for twelve years; Qianlong's for another thirty. Despite his achievements as a painter, in the end he may have felt his mission to China was a failure. The real purpose of his lifelong presence there was as a Jesuit priest, to proselytize: to promote Catholicism, and convert the Chinese around him, up to and including the emperor himself. His mission was balked; Qianlong took a harder stance on Christianity than his predecessors, and prohibited the Jesuits from actively converting others, although he did permit them to practice Catholicism as a personal religion. We do know, however, that the emperor was close to Castiglione and some of the other Jesuits, and valued and appreciated Castiglione's service as an artist. He tried to award him honors during his lifetime -- something the austere Jesuit father strove to refuse, despite even the Dowager Empress's encouragement to accept what was his due -- and accorded Castiglione posthumous honors and titles at his death in Beijing in 1766, at the age of 78. It seems only fitting for an artist whose paintings of hunt scenes and tribute, functionaries and royal family members remain both an enduring, visual record of the magnificence of the Qing court, and an aesthetic delight.
Splendors of China's Forbidden City closes with a simple, unadorned room. An ethereal work in gray ink wash portrays the emperor in a scene of solitude, playing a lute in the wilderness, with only a single courtier in attendance. It is a scene more of wishful thinking than actual occurrence, given the emperor's ceaselessly demanding schedule. Across from this hanging, a diminutive dragon-etched throne with a cushion in imperial yellow bears a white pillar of lacquered wood. It is the emperor's spirit tablet, considered a literal housing for his departed spirit; the portrait, in the painting, bears a likeness that reveals Castiglione's lasting influence. In the ancient hush, they are there together: Emperor Qianlong and his indefatigable Jesuit artist-priest, their legacy of imperial rule and artistic documentary forever entwined.
Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong will be at the Field Museum through September 12, 2004. From there, it will tour to Houston, Texas. At the end of 2004, the loan period of these rare objects will be over, and the exhibition will return to its home in the Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum, in Beijing. Curators Chuimei Ho and Bennet Bronson have also collaborated on the 288-page, full-color catalogue which accompanies the exhibition. Giving detailed information on Qianlong's life, times, and accomplishments, and with over 350 illustrations, it is available at the museum and is well worth purchasing.
ArtScope.net's review of the exhibition catalogue itself, also titled Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, is also available. Click here to visit the exhibition catalogue review.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in ArtScope.net reviews are often in print and may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. Professor of Chinese history, Jonathan Spence is quoted from his book The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton and Company:1999). Readers interested in the period may also enjoy Spence's earlier work Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kang-Hsi (Knopf:1974). (Kang-hsi or Kangxi, the subject of Spence's adept literary self-portrait, was Qianlong's grandfather.) Cécile and Michel Buerdeley are quoted from Giuseppe Castiglione: A Jesuit Painter in the Court of the Chinese Emperors (C.E. Tuttle & Co.:1971). Further information has been drawn from the exhibition catalogue Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong (Merrell:2004).