Wang Shishen, Garden scene album leaves

Wang Shishen, album leaves, 1731 (Qing dynasty) (Shanghai Museum, China)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re here in the Shanghai Museum looking at some beautiful 18th-century ink paintings of garden scenes, of flower blossoms.

Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan: [0:16] Here we have plum blossoms, some with bamboo, some with rockery garden subjects that were popular in 18th-century Yangzhou.

Dr. Harris: [0:24] I feel keenly aware of the monochrome aspect of these, that they’re just black ink on the paper and yet so evocative of the season, of late winter, of early spring, of the promise of spring.

Dr. Brennan: [0:40] This is a scholarly subject that we have seen again and again. A subject that calligraphers, poets embraced also because of the technicalities of the brushwork that they could pair the various styles of calligraphy along with their evocative sentiments in the quatrains.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] We have the black ink on paper, the emphasis on the personal signature in the brushstroke, the combination of calligraphy with painting. All of those coming together here in the 18th century but drawing on a very rich and long tradition.

Dr. Brennan: [1:12] In 18th-century Yangzhou, they were really looking to the past, studying script styles of calligraphy which were inscribed on other earlier vessels. We see a contrast not just in taking different forms of calligraphy for each album leaf, some in seal script, some in standard script, but also contrast in the brushwork.

Dr. Harris: [1:31] Here to do the rock face we have a gray wash of the ink with leaves that are delicately painted with dark ink. In other areas, we see loose brushwork to indicate the outline of a rock, and the brush feels dry in other areas where the artist is giving a sense of the buds of the flowers with touches of very dark ink.

Dr. Brennan: [1:54] Inset against a void, framing this white background. It’s a place to think about the relationship between the inscription and the object.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] We’re talking about literary circles of elite people.

Dr. Brennan: [2:10] This is important because socially speaking, this was a new phenomenon in Yangzhou. This idea that the elite were rebuilding the city after the massacre that had happened early in the Qing dynasty, the people who were investing in these garden estates and patronizing these poets.

[2:26] This particular one here, Wang Shishen, who had come from Anhui province to paint in the city. They were coming to participate in literary networks. The elite were actually the merchants. They were people who had been active oftentimes in the salt administration, which was based there in Yangzhou in 18th century.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] This is drawing on this hundreds-of-year-old tradition going back to the Song dynasty, going back to the Yuan dynasty of literati. The scholar-artist-poet who expresses his subjective feelings through his brushwork, through his paintings, through his poetry.

[3:01] Here, hundreds of years later in a self-conscious way, developing that persona as a way to market oneself as an artist and a poet.

Dr. Brennan: [3:10] This was so interesting because in the Yuan dynasty, these artists didn’t think of themselves as professionals. Here, Wang Shishen and many others who were active in 18th-century Yangzhou were professionals. They traveled up and down the Grand Canal peddling their poetry or their painting, or sometimes both.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] This is in stark contrast to that literati scholar-poet idea of the amateur who paints for himself. Here we have someone who is drawing on that persona but making a living as an artist.

Dr. Brennan: [3:41] That’s what makes the Yangzhou phenomenon so interesting that these artists moved up and down the Grand Canal to Hangzhou and all the way up to Beijing. They maybe had artist friends that they were in touch with and visited over time. Their networks were far beyond this one city.

[3:58] I find the 18th-century Yangzhou artists, in particular, fascinating simply because there were so many of them active and bringing so many new styles and ideas into the city. They’re on the cusp of this new model that then takes off in 19th-century Shanghai. This connection to garden culture is revisited in a new way at this time.

[4:18] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris, "Wang Shishen, Garden scene album leaves," in Smarthistory, April 25, 2022, accessed July 13, 2024,