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Painted in the thirty-second year (1767) of the Qianlong reign (1736–1795), this work depicts the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) capital Beijing as described in a series of twenty poems by the Qianlong Emperor called “Spring Comes to the Capital” (or “The Capital in Spring”, Jingshi shengchun). The painter Xu Yang (act. ca. 1750–after 1776) inscribed and dated the painting. Following the extravagant inscription that artfully describes the work and presents blessings for the emperor, he humbly affixed his name and style seals, reading, respectively, “Courtier Xu Yang” (Chen Xu Yang) and “Brush Soaked with Spring Rain” (Bizhan chunyu).
Xu Yang was one of the Qing court’s painters influenced by Western painting styles. Their influence did not come, however, from simply copying or mechanical repetition but developed on the foundation of traditional Chinese paintings of architecture (called louge hua, lit. “building and pavilion paintings”). Their works reflect limits to traditional Chinese aesthetics from certain diminishing effects in Western approaches, which were more suited to portraying individual architectural structures in one-point perspective but less so for accomplishing the traditional Chinese aesthetics of architectural groups and large landscapes. In this painting, Xu Yang combined the traditional Chinese use of scattered perspective (sandian toushi) and the Western one-point perspective (jiaodian toushi) to show not merely individual buildings but the panorama as a whole.
In this bird’s-eye view, Xu Yang presents the imperial city as seen from the south. In the foreground, a wide avenue leads to the Gate of Midday Sun (Zhengyang men, today known as the Front Gate, or Qian men) and stretches to the north on the city’s north-south central axis marked by a series of gates and sites including the expansive Forbidden City (Zijin cheng) and Prospect Hill (colloquially called Coal Hill, Jing shan), which looms in the north. Other landmarks include the Western Gardens (Xi yuan), Isle of Jade (Qiong dao), and even the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (Qinian dian) in the Temple of Heaven complex. The city sprawls before the viewer in a tremendously valuable piece of visual historical material.
This painting evinces how Chinese court painters incorporated Western techniques to produce new creations. It may be said that Chinese court painters were proactive and filled with inspiration in their study of Western painting but not without certain tradeoffs. The “West of the Sea” (Haixi) painting methods were in fact a sort of Chinese-Western approach with an organic combination of Western linear perspective and Eastern scattered perspective.
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Chinese entry by Fu Dongguang
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign, Zhuang Ying, et al.