June 10, 2011
An ornate 18th-century painting at the Sacker Gallery exhibition “Family Matters: Portraits From the Qing Court,” which opens Saturday, June 11, illustrates an imperial man—his face doleful and his brow furrowed. Next to him sits a woman. Her china-doll expression is vacant, her features flat.
There’s both an artistic and historic explanation for the contrast in their facial appearances, said Stephen D. Allee, a research specialist in Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Sackler who discussed the painting during a preview tour.
The man is Yinti, Prince Xun, roughly age 60 at the time. The woman is his wife, possibly Lady Jinse, who was age 14 when she married the prince.
Allee says anonymous imperial artists painted pictures of court women without actually seeing them. The wives and concubines were kept hidden from view. Their features were selected from sketchbooks of body parts. Choose eyes from Column A, nose from Column B and mouth from Column C, and you supposedly got someone resembling the female subject of the painting. “The women are very much not alive,” says Allee. Instead, the Lady Jinse and the other imperial females are essentially mannequins, adorned with embroidered robes and jewelry that indicated their husbands’ rank in the court. If a woman’s robe featured dragon paws with five claws, for example, her husband was higher in rank than the husband of a woman who wore four dragon claws. Other indicators of a husband’s status were the number of colors in a woman’s robe, whether her beads were crossed in an X at her chest and whether she was seated on an animal skin.
As for Yinti, he had reason to look world-weary in the portrait, Allee says. His younger brother became Emperor Yongzheng in 1722 when Yinti was away on a military campaign. When Yinti returned, Yongzheng stripped him of his rank and imprisoned him. Yinti was released and rehabilitated when his nephew became emperor in 1735, and he took Lady Jinse as a wife.
The Qing dynasty lasted from 1636 to 1912. Its rulers, who originated in Manchuria, sometimes aspired to Chinese ways, while still maintaining pride in their culture. The Manchu women wore three earrings per ear and Chinese women wore only one, says Allee.
If you look even closer at the paintings, you will see pockmarks on some complexions, a source of pride because it meant the person had survived smallpox and wouldn’t catch it again. Also, you can see, if you peer through the plexiglass protection, that mica was added to some of the robes to make them sparkle.
Of special note: Four of the portraits in the Sackler’s new show and most of the objects have never been publicly exhibited before and were specifically restored for this exhibition. Also, there is some exquisite rare jewelry made from kingfisher feathers, metal, silk and glass.
“Family Matters: Portraits from the Qing Court” is on view through January 16, 2012.
December 21, 2010
Today, the 21st of December, marks the winter solstice—the day of the year when the Earth is tilted the farthest away from the sun on its axis. How better to acknowledge the first day of winter, than to turn to “Seasons,” a series of five overlapping exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.
“Seasons: Chinese Landscapes,” which opened this past Saturday, features large summer and winter-themed paintings done on silk by commercial artists and painters of the imperial court as well as smaller spring and autumn paintings done on paper by famous Chinese scholar-bureaucrats, all dating from the 14th to the 18th century. According to Stephen Allee, research specialist in Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, the pieces, all part of the museum’s permanent collection, were selected for display based on their artistic quality and the way they capture the mood of a particular season. “In the traditional Chinese approach to landscape painting, seasons inspire unique emotions, such as happiness and elation in spring, peaceful contentment in summer, melancholy and solemnity in autumn and quiet contemplation in winter,” he says.
Of the wintry scenes, Allee counts Pavilion in the Winter Mountains (above) and Mount Emei under Heavy Snow (below, right) among his favorites. “Both capture the essence of winter for me,” he says, “both its harshness and beauty.” The first, a fan from 1933, is luminous. While the other, of the frigid Mount Emei, one of the Four Holy Mountains of Chinese Buddhism and a site of religious pilgrimage, seems to describe, visually, what Chinese landscape painter Guo Xi (circa 1001-circa 1090) once wrote about winter: “In the winter mountains, darkness and murk cover and enclose, and one is quiet and contemplative.” If you look closely, two scholars stand on the porch of a villa taking in the view.
All in all, says Allee, “I hope that visitors come away with a sense of elation, of having been on a leisurely journey through a new and fascinating terrain, of having experienced the ideas and emotions that inspired the paintings.”
The “Chinese Landscapes” exhibition is open through June 12, 2011. Looking ahead, here is the schedule for the remainder of the series:
Seasons: Japanese Screens On View: A collection of screens decorated with different flora and natural wonders. December 24, 2010-July 5, 2011. (A second group of screens will be on display July 9, 2011-January 22, 2012.)
Seasons: Arts of Japan On View: Paintings, lacquer ware, ceramics and calligraphy that allude to Japanese poetry and customs. February 5, 2011-August 7, 2011. (A second group of Japanese works will be on view September 3, 2011-March 4, 2012.)
Seasons: Tea On View: Ceramic bowls and utensils used in a tea room that reflect what was used during different seasons. February 5, 2011-August 7, 2011 (A second group will run from September 3, 2011 to March 4, 2012.)
Seasons: Flowers On View: Paintings of Chinese flowers native to each season. July 2, 2011-January 8, 2012.