This selection from the Ellsworth Collection at the Metropolitan Museum focuses on Chinese painting created during the period of clashing social visions and dramatic political change that marked China's entry into the modern world. In the arts, it was a time when the tensions between tradition and innovation, native and foreign styles reached an unprecedented level of intensity. The Ellsworth Collection encompasses nearly all of the traditional masters working during this period, including major examples by the Shanghai School masters Wu Changshuo (1844–1927) and Wang Zhen (1867–1938), the Western-influenced reformer Zu Beihong (1895–1953), and the advocates of a new traditionalism: Fu Baoshi (1904–1965) and Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899–1983). Of particular note are fourteen works by Qi Baishi (1864–1957), one of the best-known Chinese painters of all time.
Chinese culture underwent profound changes in response to the social, political, and economic upheavals that accompanied the collapse of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the rise of the modern Chinese nation-state. The Ellsworth Collection traces one strand of this history: the art of painting in ink and mineral or water-soluble pigments on paper or silk in such traditional formats as the hanging scroll, handscroll, folding fan, and album. Through most of the nineteenth century this strand of pictorial art constituted the only form of painting recognized in China as high art. But the growing impact of foreign cultures led to the rise of a new term, "national painting" (guohua), to distinguish this form of picture making from "Western-style painting" (yanghua). The Ellsworth Collection does not include works made using Western media—drawings in charcoal or pencil, woodblock or lithographic prints, or oil paintings. Nevertheless, the paintings featured in the exhibition vividly reflect both the clash and confluence of foreign ideas with indigenous traditions that occurred during this tumultuous era.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are: Spring Offering (1919), presenting popular emblems of long life and renewal in an abstract arrangement, by Wu Changshuo; Grazing Horse (1932), wedding the conventional Chinese medium of brush and ink with a drawing technique that was purely Western, by the most influential champion of Western-style academic realism Xu Beihong; Buddha's Manifestation of Joyfulness (1946), by leading connoisseur and collector as well as notorious forger Zhang Daqian; Seated Woman, in which economy of line, decorative use of pattern, and vibrant color reflect a Fauvist source of inspiration, by Lin Fengmian (1900–1991); and Seascape at Beidaihe (1977), translating actual scenery into a composition that verges on total abstraction, by Wu Guanzhong (born 1919).
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition opens with two galleries devoted to the leading artists working in Shanghai from the 1860s to the 1930s, including Zhao Zhiqian (1829–1884), Xugu (1823–1896), Ren Yi (Ren Bonian, 1840–1895), Wu Changshuo (1844–1927), and Wang Zhen (1867–1938). A group of artists who advocated the reform of Chinese art through the adoption of foreign media and techniques was introduced in the third gallery. They are the Cantonese brothers Gao Jianfu (1878–1951) and Gao Qifeng (1889–1933), Feng Zikai (1898–1975), and Fu Baoshi (1904–1965)—all of whom studied in Japan—and the European-trained Xu Beihong (1895–1953), who championed a form of realism derived from French academic art.