A late portrait of the Qianlong Emperor highlights the enduring allure of Imperial Chinese culture.
T his late portrait of the Qianlong Emperor – still majestic in his 80s – was a late punctuation to a lifetime series of court portraits completed in the formal shengrong style, in which the Emperor is portrayed straight on in a serene pose. A masterpiece of Qing dynasty art, it is also emblematic of how China’s imperial past continues to enthrall modern Western audiences.
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The silk scroll work was a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City in 2011. The show encompassed some 90 objects from the Forbidden City in Beijing, including murals, paintings, architectural elements, furniture, Buddhist icons and decorative arts. Many of the objects had never before been seen in public. The New York Times called it a “Qing-related coup.”
This extraordinary portrait the Qianlong Emperor from 1791 melds Western painting techniques – in particular its use of perspective – with the traditional Chinese aesthetic of stillness. The Emperor has been depicted many times in popular culture in the years since it was painted, most recently in the blockbuster Chinese television series The Story of Yanxi Palace.
The big budget production, which traces the romances and power games at play in the imperial court, has set new records in the region. The show has been streamed 14 billion times on China’s equivalent of Netflix and was reportedly the most Googled television series of 2018.
“It’s an understatement to say that the Qing Dynasty period drama has taken Asia by storm,” observed a critic for Today, who put its appeal down to its “scheming concubines” and “the most badass heroine since the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."
The Forbidden City, where the painting has remained since it was completed, is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Now under the aegis of the Palace Museum, it is presently going through a period of extensive restoration. At a commencement ceremony in September 2018, a consecrated treasure box was removed from the main ridge beam of Yang Xin Dian, or the Hall of Mental Cultivation, where Qianlong died in 1799. The renovation work spans almost 8,000 square meters, including 13 ancient buildings, and will be finished in 2020, in time for the Forbidden City’s 600th anniversary.
Important Qing court paintings are exceptionally rare and, therefore, seldom appear at auction. A notable exception was the sale, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2015, of a large portrait of the Qianlong Emperor’s favorite consort, Chunhui, by the Italian Jesuit priest and painter Guiseppe Castiglione.
“Castiglione’s brushwork gives his subject a beauty and gentility befitting a high-ranking court lady,” wrote Nie Chongzheng in the catalogue. “This painting is currently the only example of her in full ceremonial costume, and the inscription by the emperor, most likely written after her death, demonstrates his remembrance of his deceased consort.”
The work achieved HK$137.4 million (US$17.6 million) after 20 minutes of bidding, setting a world auction record for a Chinese Imperial portrait.