In the 1790s – the Qing Dynasty’s halcyon days – no one could have imagined that a system of government China had known for two millennia would be completely dead within the space of a century and a half. Although the cracks in China’s dynastic foundation wouldn’t become obvious until the 1860s, art from the early 19th Century suggests willful conservatism in the face of ominous signs on the horizon. During this time, Chinese artists looked to the past to embrace familiar tropes that provided a sort of cultural reassurance that things would continue as they always had.
That’s according to Michael Hatch, an assistant professor of art at Miami University, who studies a period of Chinese painting he says has been largely ignored by other art historians.
“There’s almost no writing about this period by scholars in the West” Hatch says. “And no stand-alone books, even in Chinese. Major scholars have actively disparaged this period as one in which nothing interesting happens. It’s like a dead zone that isn’t worth attention.”
Hatch plans to remedy that situation with a manuscript of his own, tentatively titled The Senses of Painting in China, 1790-1840. He’s conducting research for the book at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he currently serves as Andrew W. Mellon Fellow. Affiliation with the museum not only gives Hatch access to paintings in the Met’s own collection, but also facilitates access to works at museums in China, Hong Kong, and Japan, which are not easily made available, even to academics.
Hatch says painters and poets of the early 1800s often imitated the styles and themes of previous periods. Since an early 19th Century painting done in 15th Century style offers nothing new visually, it’s understandable that art historians might not be excited by it. But Hatch says there’s value in moving beyond the visual to consider other senses.
According to Hatch, subjects common in Chinese paintings of this era, including tea-preparation, plum blossoms, and inscribed stone monuments, evoke tastes, scents, and tactile sensations. While they may be derivative visually, they are dynamic in their appeals to those other senses.
For instance, Hatch says, brushwork in this period was often praised for being “awkward and antique.” These words were not only inscribed directly on early 19th Century paintings (writing text on paintings was common throughout Chinese history), but they were also used to describe the surfaces of 2nd Century engraved stone monuments. Rather than rendering the art “bad,” however, Hatch says those clumsy, antiquarian painting techniques instead serve to mimic the tactility of the surfaces of those stone monuments.
In many ways, Chinese paintings from the early 1800s are like today’s food blogs and sandy beach feet photos. They communicate specific sensory details to elicit vivid memories among their audiences. And like today’s live video streams and selfies, they documented events and commemorated one’s participation in them.
“From their writings and from inscriptions on paintings we know these artists were actually going out into the landscape to engage in cultural activities with their friends, and then they painted about it,” Hatch says. He points to a painting of plum blossoms inscribed with a poem rich in metaphorical references to delicate scents that might be akin to the smell of plum blossoms in early spring. “As someone read the poem and looked at the painting,” he says, “it would strike up this sort of bodily memory of enjoying plum blossoms with their friends in real life. The paintings were about securing that experience in the present for the maker and allowing the viewer to re-experience that.”
They were also about relating those experiences to the past. A yearning for the good old days is suggested by the ways that Chinese artists layered into their work references to their history and cultural traditions at the same time the first industrial revolution was accelerating globalization.
“These early 19th Century painters and poets and writers might have found an appeal in staying in a kind of insular environment where the same sorts of references to the past have always worked and would still continue to work,” Hatch says.
Examining the ways Chinese artists made those appeals in the early 1800s could shed light on how similar conservative isolationist appeals are being made visually and culturally throughout the West today.
Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.
Photo of Wang Xuehao’s Presenting the Tripod (1803) by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain. Photo of Michael Hatch courtesy of Michael Hatch.