The remarkable reign of the Qing, China's last imperial dynasty, from 1644- 1912, was characterized in all regards by a constant tension between external and internal, modern and traditional, progress and recess. It was a period of enormous growth and cultural definition. The Qing dynasty began when the Manchurians, from beyond The Great Wall, took over Beijing and conquered the preceding Ming Dynasty and its Han population. Perhaps because of their "outsider" status, the Qing emperors walked a tightrope of both wanting to legitimize their empire by sino-cizing their culture as much as possible, while at the same time resenting any hint of Han criticism of the Manchu.
This cultural juggling act had its effect on the arts. Themes narrowed to portray only subjects that exemplified traditional Confucian values, while technique and quality improved dramatically. In our Important Summer Auction we are offering several pieces from the Qing era that exemplify this trend.
All of the Qing emperors saw themselves as patrons of the arts, and Emperor Qianlong, who ruled from 1735-1796, was particularly engaged in the art of his court. Qianlong himself was a poet (though the merit of his poetry is debatable), and added his verse to countless paintings. He ruthlessly censored any person or work he considered to be anti-Manchurian, and conducted an exhaustive purge of books and artworks along those lines. But he also sponsored imperial workshops for all of the traditional crafts, providing his artisans with the best traditional examples from antiquity upon which he wished them to improve. He took Western inspiration from the remaining Jesuits in Beijing, but forbade the influence of Western culture from abroad. His tastes were flamboyantly colorful and decorative, but always tethered securely to tradition.
The Very Fine Chinese Embroidered Imperial Yellow Silk Cover, in The Important Summer Auction, dates from the reign of Qianlong. It would most likely have been used as a throne cover, the color yellow being reserved for the sprawling imperial family. Other themes in the cover's embroidery also connote its royal association - the liberal use of peonies, the Chinese "King of Flowers," and the gold thread border. As Leland Little Asian Art Director Kendal Parker notes, "the hand-sewn silk embroidery on the cover is particularly fine. It is exceptionally rare to find a silk piece from this era at auction, and in such good condition." It is finished in remarkable detail, with the beautiful range of color and subtle gradation that is typical of the Qianlong era.
Qianlong stepped down from the throne after 60 years in deference to his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, who at 61 years had the longest reign in Chinese history. Qianlong still exerted his influence over the throne until his death, but the last decades of his reign were the beginning of the end of the Qing dynasty. By the time he stepped down, Qianlong's court was riddled with corruption. Over the next hundred years the dynasty would succumb to the complications of their multi-ethnic origins, the challenges of a booming population and the increasing pressures of the outside world. But the artistic legacy of the height of the Qing dynasty persisted. Pieces created in the 19th and early 20th century, such as the Pair of Chinese Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Square Stands and the Impressive Chinese Cloisonné Embellished Six Panel Screen in the Important Summer Auction continued to illustrate the incredible skill of the Qing artisans. The screen is replete with symbols of traditional Chinese values, which is both consistent with the focus on tradition fostered by Qianlong and his predecessors, and something that would have appealed to a Western audience captivated by exotic Chinese art. For though Qianlong and his successors resisted Western influence on Chinese culture, they cultivated strong trading relationships with Europe - a fact that led to the Opium Wars of the 19th century, one of the nails in the coffin of the Qing empire.
The design on each panel of the cloisonné screen and the wood carvings on its front and back depict classic virtues, from the herons and lotuses representing the Confucian ideal of a pure, incorruptible court official to the magpie atop a fruit tree representing the pinnacle of happiness. Peonies also appear in both the wood carvings and the cloisonné on the screen, symbolising wealth, rank and royalty.
The lacquer stands are similarly carved with traditional royal symbols, most notably the five-clawed dragon, the depiction of which was reserved for the Emperor alone.
All three of these pieces are finished with a remarkable level of detail - they were clearly made by craftsmen with a high level of skill in deeply traditional Chinese art forms that required a lifetime of training to perfect. As artistic influences from the outside world became harder and harder to curtail towards the end of the Qing dynasty, the choice by artisans to continue to produce such incredible pieces, tied firmly to their national cultural identity, reveals their dedication to preserving long-honed ancestral talents.
Content created by the Leland Little editorial team