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Tales of Virtuous Empresses of Past Dynasties

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Period: Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
Medium: ink and color on silk
Format: album with twelve leaves

Artist(s): Jiao Bingzhen (act. ca. mid-17th c.)

Dimensions: 30.8 × 37.4 cm

Jiao Bingzhen was a native of Jining, Shandong province. A student of German Jesuit missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell (Chinese name Tang Ruowang, 1591-1666), Jiao served in the Directorate of Astronomy (qintianjian) as Director of the Five Offices (wupinzheng) during the Kangxi reign (1661-1722). He was skilled in portraiture, and his "imperial portraiture" (yurong) appealed so much to the emperor that he was summoned to serve as a court painter. Jiao learned Western painting skills from European missionaries working in the Directorate of Astronomy and put them into practice. He used perspective and chiaroscuro in all of his landscapes, portraits, and architecture paintings, showing an individualistic style.   
  Historical tales are a major theme of Qing dynasty court paintings. Drawing from the stories of virtuous empresses and empress dowagers of past dynasties, the album depicts figures including Tairen, Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE) King Wen's mother, Taisi, Western Zhou King Wu's mother, Empress Cao, the Mingde Empress, Chief Consort of Eastern Han (25-220) Emperor Mingdi (r. 57-75), Empress Deng, the Hexi Empress, Chief Consort of Eastern Han Emperor Hedi (r. 88-105), Empress Cao, the Cisheng Empress, Chief Consort of Northern Song (960-1127) Emperor Renzong (r. 1010-1063), Empress Gao, the Xuanren Empress, Chief Consort of Northern Song Emperor Yingzong (r. 1063-1067), and Empress Zhang, the Chengxiao Empress, Chief Consort of Ming (1368-1644) Emperor Renzong (r. 1424-1425). Some of them were industrious and thrifty, some virtuous and filial-hearted, and still others remained aloof from government affairs and flattered no maternal relative. This album was aimed at promoting the traditional virtues for women through the portrayal of these empresses, who were enshrined as role models for imperial concubines. In the twelve-leaf album, all court ladies are depicted as fragile and docile in rich colors, and thus have a great decorative appeal. Different from those in traditional Chinese "ruled-line" paintings (jiehua), buildings in this painting are portrayed with the European perspective method. On the left page of each folio, Liang Shizheng (1697-1763) has transcribed poems composed by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) when he was still an imperial prince. They record the stories and evaluations of these empresses and empress dowagers.

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