Saturday, May 06, 2017

Qing Dynasty Art


The Qing, or Pure, dynasty was established by the semi-nomadic Manchus (Figure 106.1). Its emperors embraced a variety of forms of Chinese art culture, both established and new. Kangxi (r. 1662-1722) and Qianlong (r. 1736-95), in particular, were enthusiastic patrons of art, while ruling over a populace of high literacy and innovation. There were three main types of artists during the Qing: traditionalists, who were influenced by landscape painters of the Ming; individualists, whose works were highly personal and frequently expressed strong political beliefs; and courtiers, officials and professionals, who were employed at the Manchu court and heavily influenced by Western-style realism (Hearn, 2003a).

Figure 106.1: The Qing dynasty lasted from 1644 until 1912 CE. Its predecessor was the Ming (1368-1644), and its successor the Republic of China (1912-49). During this era, China had powerful emperors who reigned for an average of twenty-seven years. Although much of this time was prosperous, there were several natural disasters, invasions and a final rebellion, bringing about its demise (The Qing Dynasty, 2014).

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Traditionalist art flourished under the early Qing emperors. The works and ideas of prominent Ming artists such as Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were used to inspire new generations of mainly landscape artists. A constant theme was the comparison of art and nature. According to Dong: ‘If one considers the wonders of nature, then painting cannot rival landscape. But if one considers the wonders of brushwork, then landscape cannot equal painting (Hearn, 2003b).’

Dong and his contemporaries influenced future generations. Artists including Wang Shimin (1592-1680) established the so-called Orthodox School, where the earlier landscape styles of the Song (960-1279) were blended with the distinctive calligraphic brushwork of the Yuan (1271-1368) (Hearn, 2003b). Wang was one of the Six Masters of the early Qing era, all of whom specialized in shan shui (mountain-water) paintings (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). Such works are not characterized simply by the artists’ visualizations of mountains and water (Yee & Hsuing, 1964; Maeda, 1970), but instead of their thoughts of nature (Sirén, 1956).

Wang Shimin was one the so-called ‘Four Wangs’. The other three, namely Wang Jian (1598-1677), Wang Hui (1632-1717) and Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715), along with Wu Li (1632-1718) and Yun Shouping (1633-90), were the Six Masters of early Qing dynasty art. Wang Jian’s White Clouds over Xiao and Xiang (1668) (Figure 106.2), for example, follows the similar painting method of Dong Qichang’s shan shui style (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

Figure 106.2: White Clouds over Xiao and Xiang (1668) presently resides in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

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The Shiqu baoji was a series of collections of many thousands of traditional paintings and calligraphs (Liang, 2012). Many of these landscape images emphasized the Confucian culture of cultivation and, consequently, were popular until the nineteenth century (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

A new movement for Chinese art began during the mid-Qing era. Artists who practised this were known as Individualists. One of their most striking features was a freer style of brushwork (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

Individualist painters depended on artistic self-cultivation. Having escaped the aftermath of the chaotic Manchu conquest, they did not have easy access to old masters’ works, so their styles were necessarily personal, often inspired by nature (Hearn, 2003c). Their animosity toward the new rulers was also evident in their works, which often contained discreet messages of political criticism of the Manchus, or, alternatively, covert loyalty to the deposed Ming dynasty (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004).

One of the most prominent individualists was Bada Shanren (1626-1705), also known as Zhu Da. Having retreated to the mountains and spent thirty years as a Buddhist monk, he returned to painting in 1680. His style was wild and eccentric (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004), using ink only sparingly in his calligraphic brushwork (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

Zhu Da’s work consisted mostly of the plants and animals of his local environment. These included birds, insects, fish, crustaceans, as well as a variety of colourful flowers (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004). His careful study of wildlife, and rocks, was highly original at the time (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). It has been understood that this deep and personal passion for depicting delicate lifeforms reflected Zhu Da’s belief that life under the Qing dynasty was very fragile (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004).

Many individualist styles evolved from specific locations. Anhui, Nanjing and Yangzhou were especially influential (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004). The Anhui Province was noted for its high-quality paper and ink. The Yellow Mountains (Mount Huang), with their wild cliffs and widespread pines, provided individualists with a welcome haven from Manchu domination and were prominent in works by the Anhui school. Hong Ren (1610-63) was one such artist (Hearn, 2003c).

Nanjing, having been a secondary capital during the Ming era, became a sanctuary for individualists and Ming dynasty loyalists. This was one of the first Chinese cities to become influenced by Western art. For instance, the use of shading and perspective became apparent in paintings of local landscapes. Arguably the most original of the so-called Eight Masters of Nanjing was Gong Xian (1618–89), who used ink dots of varying density to create effects of light and shade. This was probably a consequence of increasing Western influence (Hearn, 2003c).

In Yangzhou, wealthy collectors financed several individualist artists. Perhaps the most eminent was Shitao (1642-1707), whose self-expression, particularly in calligraphy, inspired a later group of artists known as the Yangzhou Eccentrics.

The third group of Qing scholars were courtiers and professional artists who were employed by the Manchu imperial court (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). This group was responsible for documentary, commemorative and large-scale decorative art, partly to promote the regime of the reigning emperor. These artists were highly proficient in terms of technique and were heavily influenced by the Song dynasty (Columbia University, 2005).

Court art flourished under Emperor Kangxi. Kangxi was a calligraphy expert who revered the calligraphic works and styles of Dong Qichang (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004). He was also very shrewd, employing the leading traditionalist Wang Hui to oversee the painting of the famous Southern Inspection Tour scrolls (Figure 106.3) (Columbia University, 2005). Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Figure 106.3: In 1689, the highly-detailed, ink-and-wash work, Emperor Kangxi Inspecting the Dams of the Yellow River was painted by Wang Hui and others, and remains one of the most important depictions of an iconic Qing state event (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

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Emperor Qianlong, Kangxi’s grandson, was also a distinguished calligrapher and obtained a vast collection of such works. His status as both a student and collector helped him to establish further his legitimacy as a ruler (Princeton, 2004). During Emperor Qianlong’s reign, the Qing dynasty reached its peak in terms of peace and prosperity throughout China. Trade and farming flourished, enriching the nation and allowing the best artists to be recruited to the court. Consequently, both the quality and quantity of court art increased (Hearn, 2003d).

Despite the existence of the three main types of artistic style during the Qing, it would be historically inaccurate to claim that each was completely distinct. For example, many amateur individualists became employed by the court and worked alongside professionals (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). The court also employed distinguished foreign artists. Among these were Jesuit missionaries from Italy. One of the most influential figures was Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who taught and worked alongside Chinese court artists to produce works combining novel European styles with traditional Chinese brushwork (Hearn, 2003d). Such new techniques included chiaroscuro, meaning the treatment of light and shade, which was developed during the Italian Renaissance (Earls, 1987), and linear perspective (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

From the beginning of the Qing to its end, several styles of art evolved, blending both with each other and outside influences. In turn, Chinese art was increasingly exported to Europe and beyond (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). 

Copyright © 2017 Phoebe Spradbery


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Lessing Images (2017). Emperor Kangxi (K'ang Hsi) inspecting the dams of the Yellow River. From the scroll of Emperor Kangxi's tour of inspection in the South. China; Qing dynasty, 1689. Wang Hui (1632-1717), Yang Jin (ca.1644-1726) and Gu Fang (active ca. 1700). Painted on silk, height: 68.5 cm. Inv. MA2460. Retrieved from

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Yee, C., & Hsiung, S.I. (1964). The Chinese eye: An interpretation of Chinese painting. Bloomington, Indiana, United States of America: Indiana University Press.

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