An detail of an scroll from the Jurchen-Jin dynasty titled Admonitions of the Instructress to the Palace Ladies by Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–406). In this scene royal children are groomed by their nannies as their parents look on indulgently. COLLECTION OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM.
Imperial courts throughout China’s long dynastic history employed professional painters—as well as architects, artisans, ceramicists, and gardeners—whose endeavors shaped the aesthetic experience of palace life. Courts were indeed the arbiters of artistic taste through the ages. The status of painters rose dramatically over the years, with the most prolific and renowned working from the Five Dynasties period to the Southern Song.
Professional court-employed artists served the aesthetic needs and desires of imperial dynasties throughout much of China’s history. Artists of the same period would often painted similar subjects using fine, meticulous techniques. Court painters became prominent during the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) and the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), but the roots of palace painting go back to Gu Kaizhi, a court official of the Eastern Jin period (317–420 CE). Gu’s famous painting, Admonitions of the Court Instructress to Palace Ladies (handscroll, ink and color on silk), contained strong Confucian moralistic messages about ways in which ladies should conduct themselves.
During the Tang dynasty both Chinese and foreign artists were attracted to the court. The most celebrated were Yan Liben (600–673) and Wu Daozi (680–959). Yan Liben’s The Imperial Sedan Chair (handscroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing) records an important meeting between the Tang emperor Taizong (reigned 712–756) and the Tibetan ambassador in 641. In this painting Taizong is dressed in a scholar-official manner and surrounded by female attendants. He is one and one-half times the size of his subjects, indicating his importance. Similarly, the red-robed Tibetan ambassador is larger than his companions and is placed in a forward position. The emperor looks benign and appears to govern his vast empire by reason and persuasion rather than by force. The Tibetan ambassador is submissive to Taizong in his facial expression and hand gesture. This painting thus advocates the authority and virtue of the Tang emperor.
Tang court painters also developed independent genres in which they depicted female figures, birds and flowers, and horses. The two most famous figure painters were Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang of the eighth century. A copy of Zhang Xuan’s Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk portrays four ladies on the right side of the scroll holding pestles and smashing silk. To their left one lady sews while the other spins the silk. In the third scene one is ironing the silk, and three more are holding the silk straight and tight. The fifth lady is the youngest; she playfully lowers her head under the silk banner. Although these ladies are working together, none is interacting or communicating with any other. This expression of their isolation, together with their exquisite gestures, elegant dress, and calm demeanor, conveys a mood of tranquility and a profound sense of separation and loneliness.
During the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE), the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), and the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) palace painting developed significantly. Works by such masters as Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, Dong Yuan, Ju Ran, and Guo Xi have been cherished ever since. Li Cheng’s A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (hanging scroll, ink on silk, c. 960, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), for instance, has a Buddhist temple sitting atop a small mountain in the center middle ground. Mist separates the temple from the monumental mountains directly behind it. The balance between the heroic rising mountains and the mist and the water flowing down the mountain recalls the interactive forces of the yin and yang. The centrality, order, and stability of the composition could symbolize the authority and power of the central court. Another politically charged palace painting is Peace Reigns over the River (Zhang Zeduan, ink and color on silk, dated to the eleventh or twelfth century, Palace Museum, Beijing). This long handscroll provides a panoramic view of life in the Northern Song capital at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng, Henan Province); most art historians concur that the scene depicts the city on the day of the Spring (Qingming) Festival. Zhang Zeduan painted the city with remarkable realism: Hawkers, camel trains, pedestrians, vehicles, restaurants, city gate, hotels, pawnshops were all depicted with painstaking detail. The most intense moment happens in the middle of the painting, when the crewmen of a boat hastily lower their mast before it almost hits the rainbow-shaped bridge. On the bridge onlookers are caught in this drama. We can imagine that the emperor must have taken enormous pride viewing the prosperous urban life under his own wise rule.
Particularly under the rule of Emperor Huizong (1082–1135) were court painters organized as a systematic and well-ordered group. Huizong reformed and structured the imperial Painting Academy and promoted painting to the same status as calligraphy and poetry. Great masters of figure painting, landscape, and birds and flowers were appointed. During the Southern Song dynasty the works of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries typified the achievements of the Southern Song academy. Both preferred the ax-cut technique to depict the texture of rocks and used off-centered composition. Mist and water define most of the painting space. A lyrical, mystic, and serene mood permeates Ma Yuan’s and Xia Gui’s paintings.
In the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming dynasties (1368–1644) artists were enthusiastically enlisted to serve the court but were not organized in an independent painting academy. The leading Yuan figure was Wang Zhengpeng, who specialized in drawing architectural settings in fine details. The Ming palace figure paintings were predominately political scenes in which emperors were portrayed as benevolent and wise. Virtuous rulers and ministers of the past were also depicted to serve educational purposes. Other masters, such as Bian Jingzhao (active 1426–1435), Lin Liang (active 1488–1505), and Lu Ji (active 1500), depicted birds and flowers. One example is Bian Jingzhao’s Bamboo and Cranes (hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, fifteenth century, Palace Museum, Beijing), which depicts two proud cranes underneath bamboo, Chinese traditional symbols of longevity, purity and perseverance.
During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) palace painting flourished during the reigns of emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. The arrival of Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans from Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Italy, England, and France in the Qing court, including Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1768), made possible interaction among Chinese and European painters. Chinese painters learned from their Western counterparts in the application of light, shade, scale, perspective, and copperplate etching techniques, while European painters adopted traditional Chinese painting subjects. The most popular palace paintings recorded contemporary events. Many of such paintings are handscrolls that bear bright colors of red and blue against grayish-yellow background. Isometric perspectives were used to indicate depth and visual recession, and great archit
ectural detail, clearly differentiated official ranks and clothing, and freshly portrayed trees, street, and clouds were included.
Source: Jiang, Yu. (2009). Painting—Court. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1688–1692. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Scroll painting of courtiers riding by Tang Xuan. A handscroll was originally meant for intimate, close-range, and occasional viewing. When not in use it would have been kept tightly rolled around a wooden pin, then wrapped in silk and stored in a wooden case.
Detail of Peace Reigns over the River (Zhang Zeduan, ink and color on silk, eleventh–twelfth century, Palace Museum, Beijing). Zhang Zeduan painted the Northern Song capital of Bianliang with remarkable realism: Hawkers, camel trains, pedestrians, vehicles, restaurants, city gate, hotels, and pawnshops were all depicted with painstaking detail.
Zhang Xuan’s Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk. Although the women are working together, none is interacting or communicating with any other. This scroll painting expresses their isolation and, together with their exquisite gestures, elegant dress, and calm demeanor, conveys a mood of tranquility and a profound sense of separation and loneliness.
Detail of the painting The Imperial Sedan Chair, handscroll, ink and color on silk by Yan Liben. The painting records an important meeting between the Tang emperor Taizong (r. 712–756) and the Tibetan ambassador in 641. Emperor Taizong is surrounded by female attendants.
Painting—Court (G?ngtíng huìhuà ????)|G?ngtíng huìhuà ???? (Painting—Court)