The Qing dynasty, who reigned in China from 1644 to 1911, was actually from Manchuria. Three emperors were known for a very rich period: Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796). This period also experienced a synthesis between the Chinese culture and their own, the Manchu one. While Qianlong was emperor, contacts between the Western world and China were quite frequent. Those contacts influenced art in both cultures. The influence on Chinese painting came through Jesuits fathers admitted the court.
Giuseppe Castiglione was a painter and a Jesuit who arrived in the Chinese emperor’s court in 1704. He quickly learned the court painting style and familiarized himself with Chinese tools. He, and the other Jesuits, adopted the Chinese customs. They dressed like the literati and took Chinese names, amongst other things. Giuseppe Castiglione decided to use Lang Shining as his Chinese name. He was one of the official painters and worked for the three emperors I named above.
One of his most famous painting is Spring’s peaceful message. This picture is made of ink and colors on silk, and the whole is set up as a hanging scroll. The scroll, of 192 cm high and 71 cm wide, is preserved in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
As you can see, the landscape is depicted by a few elements such as rocks and bamboo. In this sparse landscape, two men are standing in a three-quarter position dressed as Confucianist literati. Behind them, there is a table on which are classical literati objects, such as books. The two characters are linked to each other by a plum tree branch. On the right side, there is amazing calligraphy where we can read: “In portraiture Shining is masterful. He painted me during my younger days; the white-headed one who enters the room today does not recognize who this is. It was inscribed by the Emperor towards the end of spring in the year 1782.” This painting is a synthesis between Chinese art (by the technique and the format) and the Western world (by the blue background typical of the illuminated miniatures). Castiglione created a new pictorial style.
We can wonder about the meaning of this painting. The older man is Yongzheng and the younger one is his son Hongli, who became Qianlong. The son shows respect to his father the emperor by giving him a blooming branch from the plum tree. There are similarities between the two men in their physiques and clothing. The two bamboos in the back reflect the attitude of the men. This is a symbol for righteousness. This resemblance, physic and moral, shows us a hierarchy. The son is slightly bent, which can be seen in the bamboo as well. This gesture shows respect and obedience. The portrait painted by Castiglione also enhances the idea of bequeathing by the blooming branch. The plum flower is the spring symbol and the spring is the idea of novelty, of a new cycle’s beginning. The emperor bequeaths his title to his son, which starts a new reign. To rule China, you need authority and knowledge, which explain the presence of the table and the literati objects.
As with many imperial portraits, there are several versions of this painting. This one might be only a study before the final painting, which was hung in a building inside the Forbidden City.