In Search of Lost Arts

The eighteenth-century emperor Qianlong (r. 1736– 1795), China’s longest-reigning monarch, is among the most illustrious figures in that nation’s history, renowned for his intellectual curiosity, unparalleled connoisseurship, and patronage of the arts. Determined not to out-reign his grandfather, Kangxi, as a sign of respect, Qianlong planned to retire in 1792, at which time he would move into a compound, known as the Qianlong District in the northeast quadrant of the Forbidden City, which he had built for his personal use. Within the compound, which is composed of 24 buildings linked by four gardens, is the Lodge of Retirement, an extraordinary two-story pavilion the emperor planned to occupy once he passed the throne to his eldest son.

Despite his intentions, Qianlong continued to reign for another three years. Qianlong spared no expense in building the Lodge, commissioning the best artisans of his day, many from provinces in southern China, to decorate its rooms, which include an audience chamber and a private theater on the first floor and a series of smaller rooms on a second floor for activities such as reading and calligraphy. In their opulence and extravagance the Qing interiors of the Lodge of Retirement represent the epitome of Chinese design of that time with their painted faux finishes, carved jade insets, bamboo thread marquetry, and inner-skin bamboo carving. Silk panels embroidered on both sides so that no knots are visible are mounted within window frames that serve as light-transmitting interior dividers. Printed pattern wallpapers cover the walls of the small rooms and paintings are mounted directly to these walls. Of particular importance are the trompe l’oeil murals covering the interior walls and ceiling of the theater. The paintings, which cover a surface area of approximately 250 square meters, exhibit a Western influence and perspective, especially in the rendering of wisteria, which appears to hang freely from the ceiling. The murals are unique not only in the Forbidden City, but the whole of China, as no other examples of such scale and execution are known to have survived. Mural paintings such as these, however, inspired works produced in south China in the mid to late eighteenth century and later emerged as the exported paintings and wallpaper seen in Europe and the United States.

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