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Forthcoming book: Imperial Illusions

December 7, 2013

Exciting news! My book is forthcoming with University of Washington Press:

Imperial Illusions:

Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in Eighteenth-Century China


Detail from Portrait of Qianlong’s Consort with Yongyan as a Child (dateable to 1762-1763). Palace Museum, Beijing.

From the Introduction:

Scenic illusion paintings (tongjinghua) are massive wall- and ceiling-mounted paintings in full color on silk that were produced collaboratively by Chinese and Western painters in the emperor’s employ. These artists blended their respective styles and techniques to create monumental illusionistic paintings that at first seemed to be real, permeable spaces visually contiguous with the viewer’s own space and occupied by real figures and objects.

The Yongzheng emperor commissioned the first scenic illusions in the late 1720s, but the Qianlong emperor commissioned all known surviving examples: the first in 1736, his first official year on the throne, and the last in 1798, a year before his death. The palace workshop archives demonstrate that originally, dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of these paintings could be found inside imperial spaces in and around eighteenth-century Beijing. Today, only a handful remain to testify to the phenomenon of scenic illusion painting at the Qing court. Five single paintings and one complete interior program remain in situ; four single paintings are known to survive outside their original architectural contexts; and there are three pieces of visual evidence for works that have not survived. More may prove to exist, but the unwieldiness and fragility of these massive works severely complicates their handling, photography, and display.

Now held almost exclusively inside restricted areas of the Palace Museum, three of the extant scenic illusions were briefly displayed internationally, but upon their return to Beijing became just as inaccessible to the millions of annual visitors to the Forbidden City as they were before—and even more inaccessible than they were during Qianlong’s time. In spite of their current rarity as well as their historical, historiographical, and institutional invisibility, however, scenic illusion paintings not only offer new insights into late imperial China’s most influential emperor, but also provide essential evidence for the evolving nature of Chinese art in response to an influx of imported pictorial ideas, styles, and techniques.

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