Exhibition: Qianlong and the Forbidden City in the Eighteenth Century

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on September 15, 2010

The history of the Peabody Essex Museum, as summarized on the museum’s website, is itself interesting for scholars of the eighteenth century —

The roots of the Peabody Essex Museum date to the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society, an organization of Salem captains and supercargoes who had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. The society’s charter included a provision for the establishment of a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities,” which is what we today would call a museum. Society members brought to Salem a diverse collection of objects from the northwest coast of America, Asia, Africa, Oceania, India and elsewhere. By 1825, the society moved into its own building, East India Marine Hall, which today contains the original display cases and some of the very first objects collected.

All the more so with this fall’s exhibition, explained here in a press release from PEM (thanks once again to Courtney Barnes of Style Court for her coverage) . . .

The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, 14 September 2010 — 9 January 2011
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 31 January — 1 May 2011
Milwaukee Art Museum, 11 June — 11 September 2011

When the last emperor of China, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924, the doors closed on a secluded compound of pavilions and gardens deep within the palace. Filled with exquisite objects personally commissioned by the 18th-century Qianlong (pronounced chee’en lohng) emperor for his personal enjoyment, the complex of lavish buildings and exquisite landscaping lay dormant for decades. Now for the first time, 90 objects of ceremony and leisure – murals, paintings, furniture, architectural and garden components, jades and cloisonné – will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City will reveal the contemplative life and refined vision of one of history’s most influential rulers with artworks from one of the most magnificent places in the world.

A model of international cooperation, the exhibition was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in partnership with the Palace Museum, Beijing, and in cooperation with World Monuments Fund (WMF). “This is the first time that the Palace Museum has authorized such a large-scale and comprehensive traveling exhibition of original historic cultural heritage objects and interiors, all of which represent the apex of the Qianlong period,” said Zheng Xianmiao, Director of the Palace Museum, Beijing. . . .

A Garden of Elegant Repose

A jewel in the immense Forbidden City complex, the Qianlong Garden had remained untouched for more than 230 years when in 2001 the Palace Museum and WMF began the restoration of the 27 buildings, pavilions and outdoor elements including ancient trees and rockeries. Built when China was the largest and most prosperous nation in the world, the garden complex was part of the emperor’s ambitious commission undertaken in anticipation of his retirement. Buddhist shrines, open-air gazebos, sitting rooms, libraries, theaters, and gardens were interspersed with bamboo groves and other natural arrangements. In the garden’s worlds within worlds, the Qianlong emperor would retreat from affairs of state and meditate in closeted niches, write poetry, study the classics, and delight in his collection and artistic creations.

“The Qianlong Garden project is the centerpiece of our conservation work in China. World Monuments Fund is honored to be part of both the history and the future of this important site, and delighted to be working with the Peabody Essex Museum and bringing the Qianlong Garden to a public audience,” said Bonnie Burnham, President of World Monuments Fund.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise includes a film and other interactive elements highlighting the conservation process undertaken by the Palace Museum and WMF, as well as the gifted artisans who restored the objects and architecture to their original condition. A computerized walk-through will offer visitors a vicarious experience of one of the principal structures, the Juanqinzhai building, conservation of which has just been completed.  Museum-goers will be able to try their hand at calligraphy with a touch station that will lead them through the brush strokes.

An Emperor of Exceptional Influence

Reigning from 1736 to 1796, the Qianlong emperor led China to sweeping administrative, military, and cultural achievements while far surpassing European monarchs of his day in wealth and power. As the fourth emperor of the Qing (pronounced ching) dynasty to rule China, his 60-year reign spanned the American and French Revolutions, and the reigns of a veritable parade of Georges, Fredericks, and Catherines of Europe. The Qianlong emperor was a multi-faceted monarch – an aggressive military conqueror of vast territories and a passionate patron of the arts. Many of our impressions of imperial China’s splendor date from the 18th century and owe much to the tastes, fashions, and style of the Qianlong court. While incorporating classic Chinese design features such as elements of nature and expressions of Confucian morality, the Qianlong emperor also added new concepts from European painting styles. His desire to innovate within the Chinese aesthetic touched the objects, architecture, and landscapes that he commissioned, transforming what we recognize as Chinese art.

Objects of Imperial Contemplation

The artworks crafted for the Qianlong emperor echoed and supported his dedication to Buddhist spiritual pursuits, Confucian morals, love of literature and reverence for nature. “Visitors to this exhibition will be invited to walk through our galleries the way the Qianlong emperor would have strolled through his rooms and gardens. Around each corner are opportunities to encounter objects of beauty and exceptional craftsmanship,” said Nancy Berliner, exhibition curator and curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum. . . .

China and the Peabody Essex Museum

PEM’s relationship with China extends nearly to the Qianlong emperor’s reign and is the longest of any museum in North America. Dating to the close of the 18th century, PEM’s holdings in Chinese art and Asian export art represent some of this country’s first efforts to reach outward and establish mutually enriching, lasting exchanges with other nations.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise is the next step in PEM’s ongoing commitment to bringing new discoveries in Chinese art and architecture to the public. Yin Yu Tang, an 18th-century merchant’s house acquired by the museum in 2003, is the jewel of the museum’s collection and the only example of historic vernacular Chinese architecture in North America. The building was meticulously dismantled at its original site in southeastern Anhui province and re-constructed piece by piece at the museum in Salem. Yin Yu Tang remains a great source of pride for the museum, a deep and abiding connection to China and a rare trove of living scholarship.

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