Drawn from the permanent collection and complemented by select loans, this exhibition features a remarkable assemblage of porcelain, metalwork, jade, lacquer, and textiles that represent an unprecedented height of technical virtuosity and artistic richness in Chinese history. These works, characterized by elegance and refinement, illustrate the imperial taste for ancient themes, interest in Western motifs, and exacting patronage that contributed to the flourishing of decorative arts.
The Manchus, a semi-nomadic people from the northeast of the Great Wall, conquered China in 1644. However, they founded a new dynasty, the Qing, after previous Chinese models and felt an intense admiration for Chinese culture. Several Qing emperors were enthusiastic patrons of the arts, particularly the Kangxi (1662–1722), Yongzheng (1723–1735), and Qianlong (1736–95) emperors, whose reigns spanned the entire eighteenth century. Under their sponsorship, decorative arts entered a phase of efflorescence.
The imperial court's active participation in art began in the late seventeenth century, when official workshops were established in the capital as well as at cities and towns where there were long traditions for particular crafts. The emperors not only provided the workshops with generous funds but also appointed trusted officials to supervise the work. At times they would involve themselves in almost every step in the process of manufacture, from the initial design to the actual execution. By the early eighteenth century, a distinct artistic style, characterized by technical excellence and elegant taste, had matured.
The decorative themes of the imperial art were wide-ranging. While traditional motifs—such as birds, flowers, landscapes, and auspicious symbols—continued to play a major role, pictorial depiction of literary figures and historical events derived from woodblock-printed picture books gradually became more prominent in the artists' vocabularies. Archaism was another enduring theme; jade, porcelain, lacquer, and metal wares were made in the shape of archaic ritual vessels, showing a conscious effort to emulate the ancient. Along with the trade and increasing contact with Europe came influences on art, when foreign figures and pastoral landscape became popular images, and an eclectic style was developed in which Chinese and Western motifs were combined to create an exotic effect.
The decorative arts of the eighteenth-century Qing court represent the extraordinary accomplishments of Chinese craftsmen. They also illustrate a unique era when social stability, economic prosperity, and imperial patronage brought about an unprecedented height in the history of Chinese art.