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Yongzheng's Screen of Twelve Beauties

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While the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-1735) was still a prince, he commissioned this beautiful set of paintings for the purpose of decorating a screen in the Deep Willows Reading Hall, a study within his private quarters at the Summer Palace. An imperial garden to the northwest of Beijing, the Summer Palace was presented to the young prince in 1709 by his father the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722). An item found in the archives of the Imperial Household Department notes that in the eighth lunar month of 1732, ten years into Yongzheng's reign as emperor, the twelve paintings were removed from the screen and individually stored. The record suggests that the scenes in these paintings show the Summer Palace as it looked when it was relatively new, before lavish expansions undertaken in the eighteenth century. Painted in realistic style with neat outlines and generous color, the set follows the custom of depicting ladies of the court as women of elegance and natural grace. The artist portrayed these imagined beauties at leisure activities such as sampling tea, watching butterflies, and reading, as well as showing them in quiet reflection. He also showcased the most popular costumes and hairstyles of the Qing court women. For research on costume and accessories of Qing dynasty court women, these paintings are visual and historical documents of unparalleled authenticity. They reveal perceptions about the women of the court during the reigns of Kangxi and Yongzheng, whilst also documenting their refined demeanor and fine costumes. (Column Master: Li Shi)

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