Adventurous Collectors:

Pagoda Red Visits Qianlong’s Hidden Paradise

Recently we sat down with arts and design writer and blogger, Courtney Barnes of Style Court, to talk about our whirlwind visit to a major exhibition of Chinese treasures at the Met. Here is her special report.   —PR

Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor, Ink and colors on silk, Courtesy of the Palace Museum

When the wisteria symbolizing growth and longevity blooms this year in the Chinese scholars’ garden created for her Winnetka gallery, Betsy Nathan, Pagoda Red’s owner, will probably think of China’s art-and-design-loving emperor, Qianlong.

Juanquin theater room stage, Courtesy of World Monuments Fund, copyright the Palace Musuem, Beijing.

One of the 18th century’s most influential global figures, Qianlong constructed a secluded garden compound within his vast imperial Beijing complex in 1771. (Vast meaning more than 8,000 rooms.) His personal realm included an intimate theater decorated quite unexpectedly with a Western-influenced trompe-l’oeil-covered ceiling that offered the illusion of summery wisteria-laden bamboo latticework overhead. This surprising penchant for European painting was just one aspect of Qianlong’s complexity as a connoisseur—a hard-to-pigeonhole collecting style that fascinates Nathan and beckoned her to New York City to see The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, a landmark exhibition on view through May 1, 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shrine and statue of Jingang, Calcite or lapis lazuli, gilt copper, silver, and glass, Courtesy of the Palace Museum

“Energizing… and validating,” is how Nathan describes her visit. As a student in the 1990s, she lived in Beijing and immersed herself in the city’s antique markets and back alleys, fast becoming a gatherer of old curiosities. But her first glimpse of this part of Qianlong’s rarefied private collection came fifteen years later at the Met where ninety carefully conserved pieces may now be appreciated by the public thanks to the joint efforts of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, the Palace Museum in Beijing, and the World Monuments Fund.

Panel with Flowering Tree, Sandalwood, jade, lapis lazuli, malachite, zitan, and glass, Courtesy of the Palace Museum

Like other Met visitors walking through the galleries, Nathan was awed by the craftsmanship and visual splendor of the double-sided embroideries, hand-painted silks, lacquered furniture, jades and other myriad decorative objects acquired by the emperor.  Equally inspiring to her, though, was the emperor’s spirited approach to collecting.

“To me, he seemed voracious and wildly open—open to a variety of ideas, art forms and mediums from rustic to very refined. And he seemed intrigued by things that aren’t necessarily what they appear to be at first glance,” says Nathan. A devout Buddhist, he brought in Giuseppe Castiglione (aka Lang Shih-ning), the Italian missionary artist versed in European techniques such as linear perspective, trompe-l’oeil, and naturalistic shadowing.  Cross-cultural pollination between Chinese court painters and Castiglione led to a fresh style of art that combined Chinese brushwork, materials, and subject matter with traditional Western shading and perspective.

Interior scene, Ink and colors on silk, Courtesy of the Palace Museum

A look frequently described in contemporary shelter magazines, “the eclectic global mix,” might apply to Qianlong’s 18th-century interiors, too. In addition to being an ardent patron of the most skilled Chinese artists, the exhibition’s organizers note that Qianlong’s willingness to embrace certain foreign elements can be seen throughout his private compound: glass windows, mirrors, mechanical clocks, and Japanese-style lacquer are some of the non-native design components he integrated into a Chinese setting.  

Chair, Rootwood, Courtesy of the Palace Museum

For Nathan, the ruler’s openness also encompasses his appreciation for the unusual.  She was instantly drawn to a dramatic rootwood chair that The New York Times critic Holland Cotter likened to “some version of rustic Victoriana.” Initially, the piece appears completely wild and organic but it is actually the result of meticulous craftsmanship. As someone who has always gravitated to offbeat or underappreciated things, she was thrilled to see that Qianlong was an aficionado of the unconventional.

Panel with niches, Zitan, painted and gilt clay and colors on silk, Courtesy of the Palace Museum

Through a long-range conservation project spearheaded by the World Monuments Fund in partnership with the Palace Museum, Beijing, the entire garden complex, encompassing twenty-seven buildings and pavilions, is slated to be restored. The first structure that has been transformed back to its original state—the site of the emperor’s private theater—is known as Juan’qin’zhai, or Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service. Nathan, a mother of four young boys, still can’t help smiling when she thinks about the English translation. 

After its run at the Met, The Emperor’s Private Paradise travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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