Derived quintessentially from original woodblock prints commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor in 1696, after a painted album by the court painter Jiao Bingzhen (1689-1726), the present albums preserved the original format with a preface and poems composed by the Kangxi Emperor in the manner of his writing. The Qianlong Emperor, propagating himself as a glorious descendant in line to the generations of enlightened rulers, was determined to create a version paying homage to his predecessors. In 1739, he commissioned court painters to make copies of the Kangxi album, and composed his own poetic verses in addition to his grandfather and father’s contributions, which are included on the pages adjacent to the illustrations and enclosed within characteristic borders of red dragons on the present album.
Stylistically, the architectonic treatment of the scenes on the present albums demonstrates a continued interest in Western linear perspective, pioneered by the Kangxi Emperor and further galvanised during the Qianlong period. Realistic depiction of facial expressions, more accurate interpretation of the human anatomy and the use of Western three-dimensional modelling are also characteristic of 18th-century pictorial aesthetics.
A number of painted and woodblock-printed albums of various editions is preserved amongst worldwide museum and private collections. A Qianlong album of Imperially Commissioned Illustrations of Tilling and Weaving with Poems, comprises imperial poems by all three Emperors, is recorded amongst the collections of the Dalian Library in Liaoning. Compare also a book of woodblock prints of the 1696 Kangxi edition, with added colours by brush, in the British Museum, London (inv. no. 1949,0709,0.1). Two pages of which are illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade: from the Neolithic to the Qing, British Museum, London, 1995, pp. 407 and 409, figs 1 and 2. Another 1696 edition of the book but without added colours by hand, and an album painted on silk depicting the same scenes, featuring Prince Yinchen (the later Yongzheng Emperor) as the main farmer, are preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. The latter is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 74-90.
The Qianlong Emperor’s ultimate infatuation with these agrarian imageries and their conceptual meaning is marked by his large-scale project in 1769 of commissioning forty-eight stone slabs carved with scenes from the Gengzhi tu, prompted by his discovery of the Yuan-dynasty album painted by Cheng Qi (1279-1368) which closely followed Lou’s originals. The steles were then erected in the Yuanmingyuan, many of which are now destroyed, but two scrolls depicting ink rubbings of the scenes are known. Extant ceramic and jade versions of the Gengzhi tu produced in the Qianlong period are also preserved; see a porcelain version of this book, illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong: Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 418, pl. 100.
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