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The Wandering Landscape: Chinese Topographical Paintings of the 16th through 19th Century

Through April 8, 2018
Gallery 134

From the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Chinese artists devoted increasing attention to the geography, geology, and environmental conditions of the scenes they represented. Painters and explorers journeyed to historical sites and sacred mountains, illustrating memorable attractions in a surge of map-like prints, travel guidebooks, and encyclopedia illustrations. Site-specific paintings, known as topographical landscapes, also emerged as valuable documents of how the land and environment were regarded in premodern times. In addition to reflecting social values, these works provide a visual record of ecological changes between that era and our own. For instance, Planting Fungus at the Tiaosou-an Studio emphasizes the farming activity in the fertile Yangtze River basin during the 17th century, in contrast to the modern-day environment, which has been transformed into the industrial city of Shanghai.

Each of these paintings represents a site with specific geographical features, although artists did not hesitate to take liberties with depicting reality. In particular, they tended to exaggerate or even invent desirable features, such as nostalgic architecture or lush valleys, to produce idealized images that incorporated recognizable sites.

Yao Kuang. Famous Scenes of Yandang Mountain, about 1700. Kate S. Buckingham Fund.