PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK PRIVATE COLLECTION
Grand in scale and detail, this impressive work belongs to a set of eighteen paintings heralding the Qing military’s triumph over the rebel forces of the Nian.
The Nian Rebellion was an armed uprising that took place from 1853 to 1868, contemporaneous to the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) in the south. Suffering from famine and a series of river floods in the 1850s, largely due to governmental and administrative neglect, the Nian comprised a motley crew of peasants, army deserters and salt smugglers who coalesced under the leadership of Zhang Lexing in 1855. Inspired by the White Lotus secret societies and unencumbered by a government preoccupied faced with the Taiping Rebellion in the south, the Nian quickly overran seven or eight provinces in north and central China. They fortified captured cities, using them as bases to launch cavalry attacks against Qing troops in the countryside, prompting local towns to fortify themselves against Nian raiding parties. The surprisingly resilient rebellion was not suppressed until 1868 under the command of Li Hongzhang.
In 1885, a series of large-scale Imperial paintings was commissioned to commemorate victories over three major 19th century rebellions in China: the Taiping Rebellion, the Nian Rebellion and the Muslim Rebellions. As Zhang Hongxing writes in 'Studies in Late Qing Dynasty Battle Painting', Artibus Asiae, vol. LX, no. 2, 2000, p. 267, a total of sixty-seven paintings were created for this commission. They comprised twenty paintings for the Taiping War, eighteen for the Nian Rebellion, twelve for the Muslim Rebellion in Yunnan and Yuizhou, and seventeen paintings for the Muslim Rebellion at the northwestern borders.
This painting is the seventh in the set of eighteen, and shows the siege and subsequent recapture of the city of Pingyu in western Henan province, in 1862, under the leadership of several important Qing military and civil officials. The Qing soldiers approach from the left of the scene in organized groups, waving banners and swarming the city. Billowing clouds of gunpowder smoke fill the air, bows and arrows are raised, the walls are breached—the battle is shown at its height. The Nian rebels, few and far between in the composition, are dealt a definitive blow. High ranking and meritorious figures in the battle, pictured leading the troops and given individual likenesses, are identified by name. Amongst them are Jia Huishan, Bayan Kexi, Wu Yuanbing, Zheng Yuanshan, Liu Zishun, Zhou Denggao, Yang Feixiong, Gui Fengqing, Yu Zhaoda, Yin Jiabin, Sheng Bao, and Zhang Yao, pictured at the center of the painting looking out towards the viewer. All of them had been involved in pacifying unrest in surrounding villages before the victorious battle at Pingyu. In particular, Wu Yuanbing served as governor of Hubei and Anhui as well as governor of the Ministry of Transport, while Zheng Yuanshan was an official for Henan province. For a more detailed account of this battle, refer to Nian Jun Shi, Shanghai, 2001, pp. 309-310.
As discussed by Zhang Hongxing, recently discovered documentation in the Grand Council Archives surrounding the patronage of these works reveals that Yihuan (1840-91), father of the young Guangxu Emperor at the time, acted as the commissioner. The workshop that produced the paintings was established under the Shenjiying (Beijing Field Forces), a troop of bannermen in charge of guarding the capital. Although the painters of these works are not named in the archives, they were almost certainly under the direction of Qingkuan (1848-1927), Director of the Three Agencies in the Neiwufu (Imperial Household Department) and an accomplished painter himself. From the 1880s, Qingkuan was the director of almost every imperial art commission, including the architectural decoration of the Summer Palace and paintings for the Guangxu Emperor’s wedding ceremony in 1889 and Empress Dowager Cixi’s sixtieth birthday in 1893 (ibid., p. 269).
The paintings were commissioned to hang in the Ziguang Pavilion (Hall of Purple Splendor), a two-story building on the western shores of the Central Lake in Zhongnanhai, west of the Forbidden City. It was in this building that the Qianlong Emperor would receive foreign envoys and celebrate the victories of his Ten Great Military campaigns. It was also where portraits of meritorious banner officers and large-scale paintings of battles commemorating Qianlong's military victories were displayed. Zhang notes that upon their arrival, the new works by commissioned by Yihuan were hung in place of Qianlong’s battle paintings (ibid., p. 270).
Only a very small number of paintings of the original sixty-seven Guangxu battle paintings have survived. Of the eighteen commemorating the campaign against the Nian rebels, only the exact whereabouts of only two are known, and both are in the National Gallery, Prague. The first depicts the defeat of the troops of the chief rebel Zhang Minhang in Shandong province in October 1861, the second shows the triumphant procession of government troops which concluded the campaign in August 1868, both are illustrated by Zhang, ibid., figs 2 and 3.
A complete set of twelve paintings depicting scenes of the Muslim Rebellion in Yunnan and Yuizhou are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in ibid., figs 5 and 6. Four paintings from the series commemorating victorious battles between the Imperial army and the forces of the Taiping Heavenly Army are known. One, formerly in the collection of Cécile Mactaggart, is illustrated in ibid., fig. 1. Others sold at Christie's London, 22nd April 1991, lot 101; and in our Hong Kong rooms, 9th October 2007, lot 1312; and 8th October 2009, lot 1660. See also two paintings from the series commemorating the victories over the Muslim Rebellion in the northwest sold in these rooms, the first, 15th September 2010, lot 367; the second, 17th March 2015, lot 225.
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