The Qianlong Emperor prided himself in being one of the rare emperors in Chinese history to live to his eighth and ninth decade, and compared his cultivation and art collections to those of Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty. The Qianlong court published his art collections in the comprehensive multi-volume catalogues Qinding Midian zhulin Shiqu baoji, which reflected the emperor’s obsession with the brush arts of painting and calligraphy. Qianlong himself was not a skilled painter and calligrapher compared to Huizong and Xuanzong of the Ming, two other emperors known for their artistic bent, let alone the masters of the literati and professional traditions. But he was unsurpassed among historical rulers in the time and mental and emotional energy that he invested in his connoisseurship, collection, cataloguing, and creation of painting and calligraphy. These activities cohered into an aesthetic that would persist and dominate Qing dynasty court art for over a century.
A large number of works of calligraphy and painting by Qianlong himself is extant, outnumbering the oeuvre of any historical master and even his own poetic compositions, which shockingly exceed 40,000. These autographic works include drafts of prose and poetry that Qianlong wrote in his lifetime, calligraphic plaques decorating the palace buildings and gardens, couplets, tieluo or detachable wall paintings, fans and screens celebrating the birthdays of emperors and empresses, and poem-painting albums executed in the styles of historical masters. Some of these works were bestowed as imperial gifts, and others were looted by Anglo-French forces in 1860 and by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900, or illicitly smuggled out of the Forbidden City during Puyi’s reign, but the vast majority of Qianlong’s autographic works remain in the Forbidden City as part of the holdings of the Palace Museum collection. The few works reliably attributable to him that have emerged in the market constitute a very small proportion of his oeuvre.
Some 1500 paintings by the Qianlong Emperor are in the Palace Museum, the majority of them scrolls and albums imitating or based on classical masterworks in his collection. Although the emperor claimed only to be an amateur dabbling in painting for his own enjoyment, his inscriptions indicate serious study of classical art. He was especially trained in the styles of Zhao Mengfu and Ni Zan, creating dozens of dated paintings of landscapes, trees, rocks, and bamboos in the latter’s style alone—four direct copies of Ni Zan’s Shizilin tu juan and Shushi huapu ze and copies of his Jiang’an wangshan tu and Shanshui xiaojing, among others. Aside from a few close copies, Qianlong’s works after Ni Zan were mostly free rehearsals of Ni’s compositions and interpretations of his brushwork. This kind of creative imitation was a clear manifestation of Qianlong’s philosophy of “following the ancestors”: the Shunzhi, Kangxi, and Yongzheng Emperors—the last being Qianlong’s own father—all subscribed to this philosophy in their calligraphy and painting. It also reflected the persistence of Dong Qichang’s archaic aesthetics from the late Ming through the mid Qing period.
The miniature album was the most common format of Qianlong’s paintings, particularly albums of four “sketches from life.” He tirelessly painted the classic combinations of pine, bamboo, plum, and rock or orchid. Although he did not always mention his stylistic models, his compositions and brushwork most frequently refer to Ming and pre-Ming masters such as Zhao Mengfu, Ni Zan, Shen Zhou, and Wen Zhengming. The present pair of sketches by Qianlong, one depicting an old pine tree and a flowing stream and the other depicting secluded bamboos and elegant rocks, are in the style of the Yuan dynasty.
Each mounted in an individual album facing a jade carved in archaicising style, the two works are painted on Southern-Song scripture paper (cangjing zhi). Each painting proper measures 11.8 by 9.9 cm.
In the first leaf, a gnarled old pine tree with sparse needles hovers delicately over a flowing stream. The painting combines the styles of Wang Meng of the Yuan and Xiang Shengmo of the Ming. The pine’s branches extend laterally from the bottom right, like dragons swirling in a valley. The brushwork is mostly centre-tipped and executed slowly, creating saturated and rounded lines. The scale-like patterns and unpainted negative spaces on the tree trunk accentuate its age. The river and sloped bank under the pine are rendered in a combination of light ink washes and drawn lines, evoking the stillness and frozenness of a secluded valley in the dead of winter. They also demonstrate Qianlong’s inheritance, through Xiang Shengmo, of Song and Yuan painting, with its characteristics of conscientious centre-tipped brushwork and careful compositions. The composition and brushwork style of this leaf can be seen in many of Qianlong’s albums of sketches of the “four friends of winter,” of which over twenty examples are in the Palace Museum collection and which have survived in private hands as well. The style can also been seen in the grand tieluo that Qianlong painted himself to decorate palace buildings and gardens, including Hansui sanyi tu of 1772 and Panlong song tu of 1755 (which appeared at China Guardian’s auctions in 2007 and 2010 respectively). The pines in the latter works are stylistically consistent to the one in this leaf, which shows an earlier phase of Qianlong’s style.
The second leaf depicts a slender and elegant rock covered with moss, several bamboos, and grass on a slope. From the composition to the rendition of interweaving of branches and leaves, the bamboos, rock, and moss are clearly based on the late style of Ni Zan, as seen in several works by Ni recorded in Shiqu baoji chubian. These works were undoubtedly the source of Qianlong’s bamboo painting style. The figuration and texturing of the rock are derived from Ni Zan’s works (fig. 2) like Qiuting jiashu tu and Wuzhu xiushi tu (both in the Palace Museum collection, the former recorded in Shiqu baoji chubian and the latter collected by Qianlong but not recorded in Shiqu baoji, fig. 1). Of course, compared to the Yuan master, Qianlong comes across as an amateurish and immature painter.
Qianlong produced many paintings in the composition and brushwork style style of Ni Zan, such as Linghan qingjing tu ce of 1747 (in the Palace Museum collection and recorded in Shiqu baoji sanbian), in which the bamboos and rock are almost magnified versions of the ones seen in the present leaf. Qianlong’s paintings after Ni Zan have also appeared sporadically in the auction market, such as Fang Ni Zan shushi tu zhou of 1754 (Poly Auctions, Spring 2014) and Lin Ni Zan huapu liuzhen ce (Hosokawa collection, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th October 2014, lot 3116). Reflecting decades of study of Ni Zan's landscapes, rocks, and bamboos, these paintings are precious fruits of the Qianlong Emperor's artistic achievement.
Although many large-scale calligraphic scrolls and plaques by Qianlong have survived, his studies and copies of classical paintings are mostly in the format of small scrolls andalbums. Produced consistently throughout his lifetime, these small paintings in archaic style form the backbone of Qianlong’s painting oeuvre. There are two reasons for this phenomenon. First, the emperor tended to paint on precious ancient paper like scripture paper, jade-plaque paper (yuban jian), and slant-patterned paper (cewen zhi), which generally did not survive in large sizes. Second, working on a small scale allowed the busy emperor to paint whenever and wherever suited him, and moreover concealed technical errors and insufficiencies. The large-scale and compositionally complex landscapes and figurative paintings signed by Qianlong, such as Panshan tu zhou, Xixiyan shiyi ce, and Shijing tu ce in the Palace Museum, contain a relatively large number of passages ghost-painted by officials and court painters. By contrast, and to the delight of most collectors, the small-scale works signed by Qianlong were mostly by his own hand. Moreover, the emperor lived most closely with his personal favourites, which he placed on his desks and displayed in his studies.
Aside from the above, the present albums also reflect Qianlong’s emphasis on the unity of style in painting and calligraphy, mounting, and aesthetic judgement and his confidence in his connoisseurship and literary cultivation.
The unity of inscription, calligraphic style, and painting
Due to limited space, Qianlong inscribed only three characters on each of the paintings: Fu liuquan ('Over a flowing fountain') and Yi wenshi ('Leaning against an elegant rock') respectively. The succinct and carefully positioned inscriptions enliven the paintings ingeniously. They are written in small regular script in the style of the Two Wangs, reflecting the influence of Kangxi and Yongzheng, who also studied the Two Wangs. Qianlong approached the Two Wangs' lineage first by studying Wang Xizhi’s Yueyi lun, then the rubbing copy in the Leshantang collection of his Kuaiqing tang tie, and then such works in the lineage as Wang Xianzhi’s Yuban shisan hang and Zhao Mengfu’s Xianxie gong zhuan. Qianlong devoted the most energy to the study of Yuban shisan hang, which was regarded as the “ultimate example of small regular script” at the time, and copied it repeatedly throughout his life, as recorded in the various versions of Shiqu baoji. Through years of diligent copying and studying, Qianlong honed his calligraphy in small regular script to a level of fluency and close resemblance to his models. The characters inscribed in the present album are generously spaced, with elegant and lucid brush strokes. Typical of Qianlong’s small-regular script between the 9th and 15th year of his reign, the calligraphic style seen here is important evidence for the dating of the album.
The unity of seal text and painting
In the pine leaf, a seal impression beneath the inscription reads Langrun (this seal is recorded in Qingdai dihou xiyin pu, p. 91), and another at the opposite corner reads Ju shuiyue zaishou (ibid., p. 267). In the bamboo leaf, a seal impression beneath the inscription reads Bide (ibid., p. 91), and another at the opposite corner reads Aizhu xuexin xu (ibid., p. 266).
Bide ('comparing to virtue') and Langrun ('lucid and nourished') are casual seals that Qianlong often impressed on paintings; both belong to one set of the seals of his study. The latter can frequently be seen in Qianlong’s pine paintings because it refers to the praise by the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong of Xuanzhuang’s Preface to the Holy Teaching: “Wind amidst pines and the moon in water cannot match its purity and elegance; holy dew and bright pearls cannot match its lucidity and nourishment.” Bide is a reference to a sentence in Confucius’s Liji pinyi: “The gentlemen [of yore] compared virtue to jade.” The two seal texts not only reinforce the moral virtues symbolised by pine and bamboo, but also correspond to the two jades.
The two five-character seals impressed at the lower left corners belong to the same seal set, and are the most frequently impressed seals in Qianlong’s pine and bamboo paintings. Excerpted from poems by the Tang dynasty poets Bai Juyi and Yu Shiliang, their texts emphasize the literary and poetic qualities of the paintings and open a new dimension of meaning. The four seals impressed on the present paintings animate and complement each other, and the arresting colour of the impressions makes the paintings more attractive.
Characteristics of Qianlong period mounting
The mounting of these folding albums is typical of the Qianlong period. The polished zitan wood covers of the pine and bamboo paintings are inscribed respectively with the four-character poetic phrases Cangzhi zihua and Fuyun shurun in a seal script that is stylistically close to Dong Bangda, an important court official and calligrapher of the period. These phrases extend the meaning of the enclosed paintings.
Each of the albums is mounted in the 'butterfly' style, with two single leaves facing each other. Each painting leaf is bordered with light-blue dijuan silk. Each jade leaf consists of dozens of paper layers adhered to the zitan covers and carved with an opening fitting the jade. The silk border on each jade leaf is the same as on the opposite leaf, but is additionally decorated with fine-line drawings of auspicious symbols like dragons and qiankun in gold. The bamboo leaf maintains its original mounting, backed by imitation Xuande era paper of the Qing dynasty and lined on both sides with narrow strips of dyed pizhi paper. The pine leaf has been repaired, its backing paper changed to mianlian paper, and the paper linings are partly missing. On the edge of the backing paper is a yellow label bearing the inscription of “one hundred and eighty six,” which was likely the object’s number in the court inventory. These numbered yellow labels are commonly found on scrolls and albums formerly in the Qing imperial collection.
In the Qing court, autographic calligraphy and paintings by Qianlong were mounted together with jades in two ways. The first was to add decorative jade accessories to a painting or work of calligraphy, such as the jade plaques, tubes, and weights on folding and round fans; or to embellish the wood containers of the emperor’s works with jade inlays. The second way was to mount Qianlong’s works alongside jades—typically discs, but also rings and half-discs—in albums, but not many such albums have survived. The Palace Museum collection holds only a handful of examples, including Wanxu jiuli ce (fig. 3).
Qianlong was fond of ensembles throughout his life. Even before he ascended the throne, he invited several dozen painters, poets, and officials to create a series of sixteen large-scale albums called Huishi luozhen, each album containing twelve leaves of painting and of calligraphy respectively. These albums, recorded in Shiqu baoji chubian, were also lavishly decorated. During his reign, Qianlong was no less excited by unexpected combinations and continued to order the creation of albums, which gradually evolved into a standard format combining painting and calligraphy with imitation antique jades and enamel, carved lacquer, and inlaid craft objects. As examples of the ensemble art of the Qianlong court, in the collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei and the Palace Museum in Beijing are a dozen or so fans and several dozen ensembles of scrolls, albums, and miniature albums carefully housed in carved lacquer or zitan boxes.
It is a commonplace that artworks are playthings for adults. Being a painter, calligrapher, and connoisseur was not Qianlong’s ultimate objective. In his nonchalant-seeming collecting activities, Qianlong wanted to express himself not only as the ruler of a vast empire, but also as an open-minded, elegant, and learned sage-king in accordance with Confucian philosophy and worthy of admiration by later generations. He was determined to be the inheritor and grand synthesizer of native Chinese cultural traditions, especially the literati traditions of painting and calligraphy centred in the Jiangnan region. By copying and studying the literati classics and works of art diligently and broadly, he gained greater authority to interpret and critique cultural traditions, and moreover prepared his reputation for posterity with his own literary and artistic output. Such were the grand ambitions in Qianlong’s game of collecting.
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