As precious historical images, portrait paintings record the countenance and likeness of historical figures for future generations, and the costumes and furnishings presented in the paintings vividly reproduce various cultural systems as well as people’s living conditions and spiritual lives at that time, playing an essential role in the study of politics, economy, culture and social history.
Portrait painting in China dates back to ancient times. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, portrait painters absorbed and learned from foreign techniques while maintaining tradition, innovated and developed painting techniques, ways of expression and styles, and established a comprehensive system with distinctive features. Portraits of the Ming and Qing dynasties collected by the National Museum of China come in a multitude of themes and forms.
Traditional Chinese painting is not only a precious cultural resource of the Chinese nation, but also a resplendent gem in the treasure vault of human art. Following the “Harmony of Figures and Spirits: Exhibition of Portrait Paintings from the Ming and Qing Dynasties at NMC” in 2020, “Portraits of the Ming and Qing Dynasties from the Museum Collection” presents another group of over 50 portraits to demonstrate the artistic achievements of Chinese portrait painting in the Ming and Qing dynasties and the unique charm of traditional Chinese painting.
The Exhibition consists of three sections, covering a wide range of themes, including imperial family members, famous officials, renowned scholars, literati gatherings, young women in their boudoirs and ladies in formal costume. The exhibits present systematic and in-depth interpretations of the functions and meaning of these paintings. Portraits of imperial family members and famous officials mostly convey the figures’ spiritthroughrealistic depictions of their appearance, and serveto record their merits, praisetheir virtues and commend their deeds. Portraits of renowned scholars, which combine the functions of entertainment, artistry and appreciation, include individual images expressing personal ambition and elegant interest, and family group images praising traditional ethics and virtues. Portraits recording ladies’ appearance mirrored the feminine awakening to a certain extent, and their purpose evolved from regulation and education in earlier times to the presentation of women’s beauty.
It can be said that thisexhibition comprehensively displays the techniques, historical background, creative process and relevant connotations of the portraits of the Ming and Qing dynasties. While presenting fascinating works for visitors to appreciate, the exhibition also offers an opportunity to learn about the living conditions, ethos, ideological pursuits, beliefs and aesthetic tastes of peoplefrom all walks of life in the two dynasties, and to gain a thorough understanding of the rich connotationscontained within these cultural relics in various aspects including politics, etiquette, bureaucracy, art, customs, clothing and aesthetics.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, as the demand for portraiture surged across all levels of society, the number of painters increased and their creativity improved. Portraits of the period witnessed significant changes in schema and technique. Compared with the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties, Ming and Qing portraits stress the realistic presentation of detail. In the mid and late Qing Dynasty in particular, the traditional approach was enriched by Western painting methods such as perspective and moredetailed depictions of facial texture to make figures more lifelike in proportion and structure. In addition, as a considerable number of literati engaged in portrait painting in the Qing Dynasty, the spirit of freehand brushwork was highlighted and simplicity and romantic charm emphasized. The freehand style of the literati showed the evolution of painting methods and aesthetic concepts at that time.
In addition, the blooming of memorialportraiture highlighted the folk and secular side of portrait painting. As “elegance” and “vulgarity,” “freehand” and “realism” alternated, portrait painting in the Ming and Qing dynasties made great progress beyond any previous era. This exhibition unfolds the trajectory of the gradual changes in painting styleand social functions, and provides a glimpse of the historical origin, development trends and cultural context of Ming and Qing portraiture.