History of Sumi-e – Art and Painting in China in the Qing Dynasty (清朝/Qing Chao/Ch’ing Ch’ao)

Continuity and Routine in Chinese Painting during the Qing Dynasty

The fall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and enthronization of the Manchu rulers did not, at least at the beginning, cause a disruption for artists and scholars as it had happened with the beginning of foreign rule during the Yuan Dynasty. In fact, the Manchu, now calling themselves Qing, took over all cultural institutions of the Ming and thus ensured stability. In art, conservatism ruled.  No interruption of painting traditions occurred, with many painters continuing to paint in a variety of styles and ideals as laid out by Dong Qichang in the 16th century. The “Four Wangs” are the most notable group of artists in the Qing Dynasty, who followed Dong’s premise to imitate the older masters’ styles. However, this attitude did slowly, but steadily become a burden for painters, and boundaries between the Northern and Southern School blurred, when painters of the latter put more emphasis on technique and skill than painting in the free and spontaneous manner of that of the Southern School.

Individualist and Hermit Painters during the Qing Dynasty

In contrast to the above-named painters, who followed a more conventional way, were the “individualists”, literati who rejected the Manchu reign and chose to live an eremitic life, many of them turning to Buddhism or Daosim. Their art did not follow any particular school or system which made their pictures truly personal in style and expression. Most famous among them are Zhu Da or Shitao, whose paintings – though thoroughly composed and executed – do not quote any other painter’s style. This was not because they rejected tradition, but the common practice to simply copy a picture and caring more about how it is painted instead of what is painted. The individualists’ pictures often reminds of those of the Chan Buddhist painters –the heavy use of wet ink, quickly drawn lines and abbreviated brushstrokes evoke the feeling of easiness and fleetingness. Another group of painters who did not follow orthodox painting styles were the so-called Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, a group of painters who laid emphasis on individual and original style. They were most inspired by Gao Qipei, an eccentric painter who did not rely on brush only, but also painted with his hands, fingers and fingernails.

European Influenced Court Painting during the Qing Dynasty

Since the first contact with Jesuit missionaries in 1600, who brought oil paintings and copperplate prints to China, influences from European art started to appear in painting. In the 18th century, an Italian Jesuit painter, Giuseppe Castiglione, even became a favorite at court. His decorative realism, characterized by blending European naturalism and Chinese techniques, was greatly admired and suited the taste of the Manchu rulers. Another popular genre at the Qing court was architecture painting. It had been popular before in the Song Dynasty, and which had been neglected since then. Paintings of official houses and palaces served as documents to the glory of Qing rule.