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Pleasures of the Months for Court Ladies

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Period: Qianlong reign (1736-1795), Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Medium: ivory, cowry shell, and semi-precious stones
Format: album

Dimensions: leaf length: 37.1 cm, leaf width: 32.9 cm

This album includes twelve leaves. The paintings on the left depict court ladies' recreations in each lunar month of the year. The titles of the paintings are as follows:   
    Searching for Plum Blossoms on a Chilly Evening   
    Leisurely Playing Chess in a Pavilion   
    Playing on a Swing by a Pond   
    Enjoying Spring Flowers outside an Elegant Pavilion   
    Watching Fish from a Pavilion on the Dragon Boat Festival   
    Picking Lotus Roots in the Pond   
    Matching Sewing under Phoenix Trees   
    Enjoying the Full Moon in a Pavilion on Mid-autumn Festival   
    Enjoying Chrysanthemums in the Garden in the Deep Autumn   
    Sitting Around a Stove Appreciating Antique Paintings and Calligraphy   
    Embroidering inside a Pavilion   
    Composing Poems on a Snowy Day   
  The leaf entitled Searching for Plum Blossoms on a Chilly Evening represents the first lunar month. In the painting a maid holding a lantern leads five ladies to the courtyard, where two ancient plum tress are in full flower. The first lady is holding a hand warmer, which hints at the chill. Behind the tress and inside the pavilions, four more ladies are admiring the scene under four lanterns hanging from the eaves. One of them raises a smaller lantern to shine on some flowers. The risen moon, illuminating the scene with reflected light from the while walls, is implied though not depicted.   
  The style of the entire series is the same: ivory is used for figures, buildings, trees, and flowers, but jade, agate, and other semi-precious stones make up the ground, rocks, water and sky, as well as lanterns, vessels and ornamental objects. The ivory is accented, sparingly and judiciously, with color and some painted gold on the ladies hair, collars, sashes and ribbons, and jewelry. The red and blue lantern shades are made of translucent material that adds a touch realism and richness. The painting with well-arranged levels gives a three-dimensional effect. Verses composed by the Qianlong Emperor and in his own calligraphy are preserved opposite each picture in mother-of-pearl inlay against a black lacquer ground. The emperor also affixed his unofficial seals including "Cleansing Mind by Practicing the Six Arts" (shufang ren) and "Qianlong's Brushwork"(Qianlong chenhan).   
  Initially named Paintings of a Hundred Beauties (Baimei tu), this album was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1741. The court painter Chen Mei made the original drawings, which were executed within a hundred days by five famous carvers. Their close cooperation produced a work unified in conception, elegant, and superior in craftsmanship. This ivory masterpiece shows the Chinese high level of carving and inlay techniques in the eighteenth century.

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