An ‘elegant taste’: Paintings of the Qing imperial collection

Specialist Kim Yu demonstrates techniques used by Chinese court painters, ahead of the Fine Chinese Classical Paintings and Calligraphy sale on 28–29 November

Chinese court paintings have been particularly sought after by collectors over the past 15 years. Kim Yu, specialist at Christie’s Hong Kong, says that it is easy to appreciate why. Although ‘constrained by strict court requirements’, the works produced by Qing dynasty court artists nonetheless reflected ‘individuality and an impressive, elegant taste’.

During the Qing dynasty, which lasted from 1644–1911/12, court painters utilised a specific set of practices. A dry brush technique was used for drawing mountains; splashing, brush blending and allowing ink to flow freely created space between layers. Equally important was the paper used, which was ‘only accessible by court painters’, Yu explains.

Qianlong was the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty. His six-decade reign, from 1735–96, was one of the longest in Chinese history. Says Yu, ‘Emperor Qianlong’s collection mainly consisted of offerings from courtiers and inheritances from previous dynasties’. But Qianlong also ‘recruited painters to serve the imperial court’, and commissioned specific pieces. A standout among these commissioned works, Dong Bangda’s Spring in Peach Blossom Land, will be offered in the Fine Chinese Classical Paintings and Calligraphy sale in Hong Kong on 28–29 November.

Equally enthusiastic about poetry, Emperor Qianlong would compose and inscribe poems on a particular piece, says Yu. One significant example of this is Zhang Zongcang’s Dream of the Crane Studio, also to be offered in the 28-29 November sale.

The many colourful seals with which Chinese court paintings were stamped have become an important parameter for evaluation. ‘Collectors compare and match the seals to trace the provenance,’ Yu says.

After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, ‘lots of court paper leaked out’. Zhang Daqian, today considered one of the most important Chinese artists of the 20th century, was able to acquire the court paper of which he was particularly fond. Daqian’s exquisite Splendour of the Peak will be offered in Hong Kong on 26 November as part of The Pioneers, a special chapter of the Hong Kong evening sale that will celebrate modern and contemporary Asian artists.