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How to Picture a Qing Garden

November 21, 2010

Last week I presented a paper at “Artful Retreat: Garden Culture of the Qing Dynasty,” a symposium jointly organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and Harvard University in connection with the exhibition The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City. Below is the abstract:

“How to Picture a Qing Garden: Engraving Qianlong’s European Palaces”

In 1781, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1795) ordered court painter Ilantai (act. c. 1750-1790) to produce images of the “European Palaces” (Xiyang lou 西洋樓), the Sino-Baroque imperial garden in which Chinese and European architecture and garden design coalesced into an innovative whole. Qianlong was not the first Qing emperor to commission pictures of his gardens, but the resulting perspectival engravings of the European Palaces are unique in Qing garden culture. Reflecting the multicultural style present in both the garden and the eighteenth-century imperial painting academy, the Pictures of the European Palaces and Waterworks (Xiyang lou shuifa tu 西洋樓水法圖) present twenty views of the site using both Chinese and European pictorial techniques to construct the ideal view of each scene.

Although the engravings are not unknown, their biography has long been overlooked in favor of their connection with the European Palaces ruins. How did Qianlong come to choose an obscure academy painter rather than a more well-known artist? Why choose engravings rather than the traditional format of paintings for a garden representation? Why did the engravings take six years to produce? Who was allowed to use the Pictures to picture the garden? This paper reveals the history behind the Pictures’ production to understand not only how to view the engravings themselves, but also how to view the imperial garden they seek to represent, and the emperor whose vision inspired both works.

 

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