Palaces and Pavilions: Grand Architecture in Chinese Painting

Despite its imposing quality and intricate detail, grand architecture is seldom the primary subject of Chinese painting and often serves merely as a decorative backdrop to human events and activities. The twenty-six paintings in this exhibition revolve around three broad themes in which large, formal buildings play such a role: historical palaces and the daily lives of palace women, palaces in paradise and other imaginary dwellings of deities and immortals, and elegant pavilions erected by public officials or wealthy individuals and often commemorated in famous works of literature.

Over the centuries, a range of painting styles evolved to depict architecture. The meticulous blue-and-green style of landscape painting that originated during the late seventh century frequently incorporated architectural elements. However, it was only during the tenth and eleventh centuries that architecture itself emerged as a distinct genre of painting. In the eleventh century, scholar-artists began to employ the baimiao (plain outline) method, which involved detailed line drawing done in monochrome ink, and during the subsequent Southern Song (1127–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties, another, more precise form of ink painting called jiehua(ruled line) developed that required the use of a straightedge and was the only traditional, nonfreehand style of painting.

This period marked the first great efflorescence of Chinese architectural painting and set the standard for centuries to come, with many later works claiming to preserve the appearance of lost originals from the Song and Yuan dynasties. All three major styles are represented in the exhibition. Several original works from the period are included, while many of the blue-and-green paintings are copies associated with Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552), one of China’s most technically accomplished painters.