Arts of the Ming Dynasty: China's Age of Brilliance

January 23–September 13, 2009

The Return of the Academy

The exhibition opens with a group of works created under the first Ming emperor (r. 1368–98), who reinstituted native rule but became increasingly mistrustful of the scholarly class. Scholar-artists who lived through this period continued Yuan pictorial traditions, creating paintings that celebrated a life in reclusion or themes of endurance, most notably the "three friends of winter"—pine, bamboo, and plum. It was not until the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–35) came to the throne that a systematic structure of recruitment, examination, and promotion for court artists was put in place, attracting talented artists from across the empire for many decades. Working in brilliant mineral colors on silk, these artists revived the representational styles of the Song Imperial Painting Academy. An astonishing example on view from this period is Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden (ca. 1437) attributed to the preeminent court artist Xie Huan; depicting the most powerful men in Chinese government, it demonstrates how the Chinese elite preferred to be shown engaged in refined cultural pursuits rather than with the obvious trappings of political power. With the accession of the fifteen-year-old Jiajing emperor (r. 1522–66), however, the fortunes of the academy declined, and within a few years there were no distinguished painters in court service. The entire academic painting institution came to a virtual halt about 1530.