The relationship between a ruler and his or her favourite painter is a fascinating thread in the history of art: think of Philip IV of Spain and Velázquez (1599-1660), or of Charles I of England and Van Dyck (1599-1641). In China, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) had such a relationship with the Suzhou-born landscape painter Zhang Zongcang (1686-1756).
The fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty was also a voracious art collector, and on his first tour of southern China in 1751, Gao Bin (1693-1755), one of the Emperor’s fathers-in-law, presented him with an album of 16 leaves depicting local scenes by the minor local official Zhang Zongcang.
Impressed, the 40-year-old Qianlong ordered the 65-year-old painter to the imperial court in Beijing. So began Zhang Zongcang’s career as a court painter.
Honoured by such recognition, the artist worked tirelessly, producing a great number of works in just four years — 116 of them recorded in the Shiqu Baoji (the catalogue of the paintings and calligraphy in the imperial collection, Part III).
Wutong Studio in Autumn is a rare work rendered in interwoven dry brushstrokes to create a dense, chiaroscuro effect similar to that of a sketch, as Christie’s International Specialist Head of Chinese Paintings Kim Yu explains in the video, above.
Painted in 1751, soon after Zhang Zongcang entered the court, the handscroll records the misty autumnal scenery at Yuanming Yuan (literally ‘Gardens of Perfect Brightness’), with the Emperor as the seated red-robed figure looking at the Wutong (Chinese parasol) tree, and the artist as the blue-robed figure in the skiff.
A smattering of leaves indicate the change of season, as does a poetic inscription — referring to the famous prose-poem Sound of Autumn by the Song dynasty literati Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) — that was added by the Emperor himself.
‘Other artists paint according to the principles of things, Zongcang paints according to the internal logic’ — the Qianlong Emperor
As Kim explains, Zhang Zongcang belonged to a school of Chinese literati artists who sought a difficult balance between discipline and freedom, according to the teachings of Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715).
For Qianlong, Zhang Zongcang was on a level with the so-called ‘Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty’. ‘Other artists paint according to the principles of things, Zongcang paints according to the internal logic,’ he wrote. ‘He has no comparable at the present. His works are comparable to those by Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) and Ni Zan (1301-74).’
Qianlong was particularly taken with his court painter’s attention to rhythmic flow, one of the ideals of literati painters, who sought expression over literal representation.
‘In the past, whenever I watched Zongcang paint, I always asked him whether the painting had been completed. He would reply, “The rhythmic flow has not been achieved.” Momentarily he would say that “Once the rhythmic flow has been achieved, the painting will be completed.” This is truly the real essence of painting and calligraphy.’
In 1753, the Emperor promoted Zhang Zongcang and the junior artists he supervised to a title never previously accorded a court artist; a year later, Qianlong granted him permission to return to Suzhou, where he died in 1756.
The Emperor continued to take pleasure in Zhang Zongcang’s paintings; indeed, there is reason to believe that Wutong Studio in Autumn held special meaning for him. Alongside the poetic inscription and five seals from the Shiqu Baoji, the handscroll bears a number of additional Qianlong seals corresponding to different periods in the Emperor’s life, suggesting that he took it out to view it multiple times.
He also instructed his court to seek out and acquire works that pre-dated the artist’s residency at court, with the result that it is rare to find a work by Zhang Zongcang outside the imperial collection.
As Kim says, specialists and collectors delight in tracing provenance through such seals, and on this handscroll there are no fewer than 19. After Qianlong died, it remained in the Forbidden City for more than a century, as seals from the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796-1820) and Xuantong Emperor — aka Puyi (r. 1908-12) — attest.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
On 19 October 1922, Puyi, the last emperor of China, bestowed the painting on his brother Pujie, who took it with him when he left Beijing, whereupon it was lost in the turmoil of northeast China.