The Hall of Green Wilderness, Qing dynasty, 18th century
Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
61 1/2 x 26 1/8 in. (156.2 x 66.4 cm)
Gift of Carol S. Brooks in honor of her father, George J. Schlenker, and R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1997
Yuan Jiang's cleverly composed image of a garden estate offers a fine illustration of his unique style, and a fascinating glimpse into the elite culture of eighteenth-century Yangzhou.
Two scholars sit in a pavilion, deeply engaged in lofty discussion. Covered walkways leading out from both sides of the building indicate that it is part of a garden estate. Outside the walls of the garden, streams and paddy fields stretch past several farming villages and a Buddhist temple toward a distant mountain range, whose foothills are obscured by mists. The entire scene is infused with the blue and green colors that are often associated with representations of Daoist paradises. Thus, on first impression, this painting seems to embody the aesthetic reverence for nature that was a standard trope in traditional Chinese painting.
This initial impression, however, is quickly altered by reading the scroll's title written in the upper right hand corner. This inscription identifies the subject of the painting as The Hall of Green Wilderness, the name of a garden retreat belonging to the legendary Tang dynasty (618-906) statesman and scholar, Pei Du.1 Influenced by this information, our perception of the scroll suddenly changes. For example, the blue-green palette that at first seemed to have quasi-paradisiacal connotations now assumes art-historical significance as well, since the blue-green style was first developed during the Tang dynasty.
Moreover, knowing the specific subject of the painting also changes our appreciation of its composition. Since the original Hall of Green Wilderness had long since disappeared by the eighteenth century, Yuan Jiang had to rely entirely on his own imagination to paint the legendary garden. His solution to the problem of how to depict a historical site about which there was little accurate information was to represent the aesthetic essence of the garden rather than its physical appearance. That is, since he didn't know what the garden actually looked like, he depicted instead a rustic landscape that embodies the spirit of the garden. By employing this clever compositional strategy of displaced representation, Yuan thus transformed a seemingly routine image into a very complex and innovative work of art.
The Hall of Green Wilderness not only illustrates the artistic skills of its creator, but also reflects the cultural environment in which it was made. Yuan was active for most of his life in Yangzhou, a city renowned in eighteenth-century China for the beauty of its private gardens. These gardens served two principal cultural functions: they offered their owners an aesthetic refuge from the bustle and noise of urban life, and they provided an elegant social space in which to entertain friends. Both of these aspects of gardens are represented in this painting of two men enjoying a chat in a tranquil environment. Hence, while the title directs us to view the painting as a portrayal of a historical garden, we can also see it as the embodiment of ideals and values associated with contemporary garden culture at the time it was made.
Both the style and subject of this painting provide some insights into the commercial art market of eighteenth-century China. Yuan Jiang was a professional artist working in a highly competitive environment, and to succeed he had to create a niche for himself that was different from other artists. He accomplished this in part by developing a unique style that combined painstaking brushwork with sumptuous coloring, often executed on an impressively grand scale. He also distinguished himself through his fresh, innovative designs. In this regard, it is significant that there are several other paintings of The Hall of Green Wilderness signed by Yuan Jiang and his follower Yuan Yao (active ca. 1720-1780).2 Since this subject was unusual in the tradition of historical garden paintings, the existence of these other images indicates that The Hall of Green Wilderness may have been a specialty of Yuan's workshop.
Yuan Jiang was a native of the city of Yangzhou. Because he did not belong to a prominent family, relatively little is known about his life. Early in his career, he may have studied under another Yangzhou artist, Li Yin (active late 17th - early 18th century), to whom he appears stylistically related. In 1706, he was hired as an assistant to the painter Gao Qipei (1660-1734), and probably worked for him for several years. Through his connection with Gao Qipei, Yuan may then have worked at the imperial court as a painter-in-waiting during the early years of the Yongzheng reign period (1722-1735). After this, he is said to have spent several years painting for the wealthy merchants of Shanxi province, before finally returning home to Yangzhou. His dated paintings span the years from the 1690s to the 1740s (with one controversial painting that seems to be dated as late as 1756). Toward the end of his life, Yuan's output slowed, and much of the work was probably taken over by his follower Yuan Yao, who was most likely either a son or nephew. It is not known precisely when Yuan Jiang died.
Cahill, James. "Yuan Chiang and his School." Ars Orientalis 5 (1963), pp. 259-72, and Ars Orientalis 6 (1966), pp. 191-212.
Nie Chongzheng. Yuan Jiang yu Yuan Yao. Shanghai, 1982.
Rogers, Howard. Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City. Exh. cat., International Arts Council, Lansdale, Penn., 1988, pp. 185-86.
Yu Jianhua. Zhongguo meishujia renming cidian. Shanghai, 1981, p. 756.
Private collection, Japan (1964)
Collection Dr. George J. Schlenker, Piedmont, California
Collection Carol Brooks, from whom acquired in 1997
Cahill, James. "Yuan Chiang and his School, Part II." Ars Orientalis 6 (1966), fig. 20.
This hanging scroll is painted with ink and colors on silk. The image and mounting are both in excellent condition. The title and signature of the artist are in the upper right corner, with two seals of the artist.
1. Pei Du (765-839) was a distinguished scholar, who held several important government posts during his illustrious career. He is perhaps most famous for thwarting the rebellion of the regicidal eunuch Liu Keming and restoring emperor Wenzong to the throne in 827. After retiring from politics, Pei constructed The Hall of Green Wilderness on his estate outside the city of Loyang, where he spent the remainder of his life reading, writing, and entertaining the leading literary men of his day. His biography is included in both of the Tang dynastic histories. See Jiu Tang Shu, chapter 170; and Xin Tang Shu, chapter 173.
2. Two other paintings of this subject by Yuan Jiang are known. One, dated 1719, is in the Palace Museum, Beijing; see Nie Chongzheng, Yuan Jiang yu Yuan Yao (Shanghai, 1982), p. 23. The other, apparently undated, was offered for sale at New York (Christie's), 28 November 1990, lot 38. There are also two paintings of this subject by Yuan Yao. One version, dated 1745, is discussed in Nie Chongzheng, op. cit., p. 29. Another version, dated 1770, is in the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; see Chou Ju-hsi and Claudia Brown, The Elegant Brush: Chinese Painting under the Qianlong Emperor, 1735-1795 (exh. cat., Phoenix Art Museum, 1985), p. 126.