Empire of the senses

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 18

Among the magnificent art owned by the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, few possessions were more treasured than an album of landscapes painted by a great imperial master, says Frances Wood

When he inscribed each leaf of a precious album of Chinese landscape paintings and marked them with his seals, the Qianlong emperor was demonstrating his appreciation of a great work of art. The album, painted in 1698, was the work of the painter Wang Hui, one of the great masters of imperial Beijing. The album, which will be auctioned by Bonhams in Hong Kong inw May, is not an isolated example: the Qing dynasty emperor frequently decorated great Chinese paintings in the imperial halls of his palace in the same way.

Although the appreciation (and practice) of Chinese painting was clearly very important to him, his cultural activity was enormous, and not restricted to painting. His prose writings (in Chinese) comprise 92 juan (slim volumes), while 42,000 poems are attributed to him, although it is doubtful that he wrote all of them himself. Not only did he demonstrate his mastery of Chinese prose, modeling his calligraphic style on that of the great master Dong Qichang, but he also wrote lyrically of his boyhood as a Manchu prince, hunting, riding and delighting in the open-air life of his ancestors. Indeed it was said that his bravery at the age of 11 when faced by a bear on a hunting trip with his grandfather, who was the Kangxi emperor, influenced the succession in his favour.

Conscious of his Manchu heritage, the Qianlong emperor was proud of his victories over internal rebellions and threatening neighbors, yet he also spent much time demonstrating his mastery of the Chinese language and cultural traditions. Subsequent Qing emperors gradually lost touch with their Manchu heritage, but Qianlong represented the dual tradition that characterized the early Qing period.

The mastery of this tradition involved a broad interest in many aspects of East Asian culture that nevertheless had a strong political undercurrent. The Kangxi emperor had demonstrated his adherence to Chinese culture, and hence to the welfare of his Chinese subjects, through his patronage of great publishing enterprises such as the Kangxi dictionary and the Gengzhitu – a series of pictures of plowing and weaving. The Qianlong emperor took the political message of adherence to China further through portraits. A portrait in the red robes of a Tibetan Buddhist surrounded by a gods and monks denotes the political importance of China's relations with Tibet and Mongolia during the 18th century, and a more intimate study of the emperor 'reading in the snow' shows his absorption in the Chinese literary tradition. The painting, which shows the emperor wearing a loose scholar's gown sitting in a rustic hut surrounded by snow-laden trees and a frozen pool, is significant in the exploration of what Chinese art meant to him. He painted the snowy landscape himself but, unsure of his ability as a figure painter, he asked the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, a painter at the imperial court, to complete the portrait.

As part of his general education, the Qianlong emperor studied painting, but he also took a personal interest in the collections of art works held in the palace. Thanks to the work of young scholars like Nicole Chiang and Yen-Wen Cheng, we now understand more clearly how he saw the palace collections. Some objects were made for the palace, often 'for display', but others that were in the emperor's view, 'superior' artifacts, were to be studied and treasured and carefully stored. The distinction rested with the emperor's personal assessment. Apparently, the Qianlong emperor prided himself on his ability to distinguish between originals and copies of great Chinese paintings, although later scholars have sometimes suggested he was not always right.

The emperor also decided where works of art should be stored. There were a number of specially designated halls and, as is indicated by one of his seals, he intended that the Wang Hui album should be stored in the Chunhuaxuan or Verandah of Purification. The pieces that he valued most highly were intended to be carefully tucked away, distinct from the second-class objects on display. But several paintings depict him admiring imperial treasures, and it is clear from the seals printed on the Wang Hui album over time that the stored treasures were brought out for appreciation on special occasions. The special storage boxes and cases for precious objects were frequently labeled in the emperor's own hand. As part of his continuous inspection of palace treasures, the Qianlong emperor also commissioned several catalogs of objects such as bronzes and paintings. In doing so, he may have been modeling his activities on those of the Huizong emperor of the Song dynasty (r.1100-1125) who was known as an accomplished painter but who also commissioned catalogs of the imperial collection.

If there was a conscious identification by the Manchu Qianlong emperor with a great Chinese emperor of the past, there was also a practical difference between the two great cataloging enterprises. Huizong's catalogs were lists of paintings with the artists' biographies, while the more useful catalogs of the Qianlong emperor divided paintings by subject, the major distinction being between religious (mainly Buddhist) painting and secular painting. Less biographical material was included but the paintings were described in detail and the all-important designation of a place of storage was included so that the treasures could be retrieved as needed.

Given the amount of time that the Qianlong emperor devoted to examining and assessing the Chinese paintings in the palace, and to his own painting (although it was not unknown for his name to be affixed to paintings by artists at court), it seems clear that his interest was genuine. He set aside a special room for the display of the works of great Chinese calligraphers and added significantly to the imperial collections, but he is recorded as rejecting gifts and confiscations that were unworthy.

Though the Qianlong emperor was perhaps the last to uphold Manchu traditions, in devoting himself to Chinese culture, he followed the example of his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor. The latter had maintained the habit of writing out the Heart Sutra, one of the most important Buddhist texts, on 1st and 15th of every month, to practise his calligraphy, the highest Chinese art, and to demonstrate his adherence to the religion, an important political move. For the same reasons, from 1736 to 1774, the Qianlong emperor wrote out the Heart Sutra on the first day of each month and on the Buddha's birthday. From 1775, at every Spring Festival, he painted a cheerful New Year painting inscribed with a poem to express his own artistic and literary participation in the most significant festival of the Chinese year.

Frances Wood is former curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library.

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