The Ch’ing or Manchu dynasty, whose downfall we have recently witnessed, brought no new vigor to China. Barbarians once again invaded the aged and enfeebled empire usurping the methods, history and organization of the preceding periods. The change in China at the end of the seventeenth century was only dynastic. The evolution of Ming tendencies continued, and despite the reorganization undertaken by Kang Hsi and maintained by his two successors, the excessive requirements of the old system, which had been formulated during the Sung epoch and definitely established in the Yüan and Ming periods, were so exacting that irremediable decadence was inevitable. Thenceforward no great changes in the realm of painting need be expected. It only continued its logical evolution.

It is necessary, nevertheless, to lay stress on the value of Chinese painting from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, for an opinion is current that, while there might still be something of value under the Ming dynasty, nothing good was produced under the Ch’ing. It is undeniable that marked signs of decadence are seen in the latter period, but by the side of some inferior works, others exist which maintain the vitality of the past and the hope of a renaissance.

In refutation of such hasty and ill informed opinion, it is sufficient to recall a number of paintings, signed and dated, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which dealers or collectors calmly attribute to the eleventh and twelfth.

Chinese painting at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century was still full of vitality. The taste for brilliant color gradually diminished, and the composition became broader and more noble at the hands of certain painters, in whom is seen the revival of the vigorous race of yore. This was the time when Yün Shou-p’ing, more commonly known under the name of Nan-t’ien, painted landscape and flowers with the restraint and power of the old style, and when Shen Nan-p’ing set out for Japan to found a modern Chinese school which was to rival the Ukioyoyé in importance and activity. About them was grouped a large following, foretelling fresh developments.

No support was given to this movement by the new government, which was infatuated with the academic style of the earlier reigns and becoming more and more ignorant as the last years of the nineteenth century approached. In the eighteenth century a comparatively large number of Chinese painters settled in Japan, where they continued the traditions of Ming art. The observation of a Nan-t’ien or of a Shen Nan-p’ing was keen and painstaking, but the objectivity and realism now coming to the fore, were conspicuous in their works. No longer was it the world of pure substance and abstract principle that was sought, but the real, everyday world, the world of objective forms studied for themselves, living their own life, on the threshold of which the spirit halted, no longer guided by the old philosophies.

Plate XXII

Ming Period. Collection of V. Goloubew.

This character was maintained up to the nineteenth century. It is seen in the painting of flowers and landscape as well as in figure painting. These traits are equally apparent in an iris by Nan t’ien and a personage by Huang Yin-piao. The latter, working in the middle of the eighteenth century, evoked the personages of Buddhist and Taoist legend with a skillful brush, but his daring simplifications were more akin to virtuosity than to that deep reflection and freedom from non-essentials which were the glory of the early masters. Herein are discerned the elements of decadence, which are wont to assume precisely this aspect of a mastery over difficulties. For such ends genuine research and the true grasp of form were gradually abandoned.

Calligraphy and the literary style were not overlooked, but they were carried to a point of abstraction that is beyond the province of art. A personage was represented by lines which formed characters in handwriting and which, in drawing the figure, at the same time wrote a sentence. Doubtless that is a proof of marvelous skill. I agree in assigning such masterpieces to the realm of calligraphy but refuse to admit them to the domain of painting.

This applies as well to the so-called thumb nail painting held in high repute under the last dynasty. In this the brush is abandoned and the line is drawn by the finger dipped in ink or color. The painting is done on modern paper of a special kind which partially absorbs the paint, in the manner of blotting paper; this results in weak lines, and ink and color schemes devoid of firmness, in short, in a lack of virility which places such works, notwithstanding their virtuosity, in the category of artisan achievements. These works are numerous in the modern period and constitute what so many regard as Chinese painting. One cannot be too careful in discarding them.

During every period decorative paintings, religious paintings and ancestral paintings made after death, were executed in China by artisans, ordinary workmen at the service of whosoever might engage them. Such work should not be consulted in studying the styles of great periods or the higher manifestations of an art. These paintings were the first to leave China and find their way to Europe. There is no reason for analyzing them here.

To sum up, Chinese painting of the last two centuries still numbers masters of the first rank. This alone indicates that the sacred fire is by no means extinct. Who shall say what future awaits it amidst the profound changes of today? After a period of indecision which lasted for twenty-five years, Japan has found herself anew and is seeking to revive her artistic traditions. It is to be hoped that China will, at all costs, avoid the same mistakes and that she will not be unmindful, as was her neighbor, of the history of the old masters.


Ming Period. Sixteenth Century. Collection of R. Petrucci.