Painting for the Emperor: Giuseppe Castiglione

Mention the name Giuseppe Castiglione in the artist’s native Italy and you’ll be met with blank looks, yet Castiglione is one of the most famous painters in the world. Born in 1688 into a Milanese family, Castiglione was a Jesuit and his flair for painting saw him chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel to China as a missionary to the Qing court.

One Hundred Horses, Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), 1728, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

One Hundred Horses, Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining), 1728, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Lecturing at Asia House in the final in the Treasures of the Palace Museum, Taipeiseries, Christie’s Nixi Cura explained that the Qing Emperors were “wily” when choosing Jesuit missionaries to join the Imperial household. They granted permission to missionaries who possessed a craft or skill which would be useful to the court. Other Jesuits such as the well-known Matteo Ricci were invited to the court for their scientific prowess; Castiglione was welcomed for his skill in European painting technology.

It is thought that European painting was valued in China largely for its use of perspective and shading, which gives a two dimensional image the illusion of volume and depth. The ability to create such realistic images would have seemed fabulously novel to the Qing Emperors and European painters such as Castiglione were instructed not only to produce their own work, but also to school Chinese court painters in European painting techniques.

It is important to remember, says Cura, that when we talk about Castiglione we are talking about “not just one man but an entire movement in painting”. By teaching others to paint using his techniques, Castiglione made it difficult for modern art historians to determine whether a work is a ‘real’ Castiglione or not. When deciding between two pieces, says Cura, the “best” work is usually the genuine Castiglione.

Castiglione’s imperial patron was the Qianlong Emperor, a great art collector and connoisseur. Of the many fascinating paintings Cura introduced us to one of the most interesting was an astounding portrait of Qianlong’s father, the Yongzheng Emperor, in European style dress. The painting is housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing and features the Emperor in a Georgian-style wig, cravat and jacket. Not only does this painting show that the Qing Emperors clearly had a sense of humour, but that the taste for exotic European aesthetics was deeply entrenched in the Qing court well before Castiglione even set foot on Chinese soil.

Castiglione’s own portraits show the Emperor in a variety of unprecedentedly candid poses, such as the well-known image of Qianlong on horseback. Castiglione also used European techniques of depth painting to decorate palaces and create theatre sets. Castiglione’s most famous work is probably the Western-style palace at Yuan Ming Yuan; designed in collaboration with other Jesuits at the court, the palace was a hybrid of Chinese and Western styles.

In the Q&A one of the questions brought up was “why would Qianlong want to immerse himself in Western painting?” Cura believes that the Qing taste for European styles was related to their being Manchus, rather than a native Chinese dynasty. For the Qing Emperors “Western visual technology offered something different” and it is this difference from the tastes of previous ‘Chinese dynasties which makes this style “distinctly Qing”. Qianlong’s love of the exotic was a life-long affair, even his tomb “although Tibetan Buddhist in content” was “wholly Western in style”.

Despite the Emperor’s love affair with all things foreign, many of the Chinese literati saw European painting as a “trick”. In the Chinese tradition, calligraphy is the foundation of painting with the marks of the brush expressing “the character of the painter”. With brush and ink paintings, any marks cannot be undone so the painting is an ‘honest’ reflection of the painter’s skill. European painting however, with its invisible brush marks and volumetric representation was just an illusion and “not painting for scholars”. For the Manchus however, the realism of European-influenced court painting was symbolic of the “truthfulness” of their rule, as opposed to the corruption of the previous Ming dynasty.
In the Q&A, Stacey Pierson asked Nixi whether she thought Giuseppe Castiglione’s work could be described as ‘Western’ painting. Cura replied that Castiglione’s work is “not anywhere, it is in between”. Castiglione himself was not Chinese and the paintings were for a Manchu rather than a Chinese court, yet “no-one in Italy as ever heard of him”. Furthermore, although Castiglione’s work is European in many of his techniques, his style was modified to suit the tastes of the Qing emperors. A truely international artist, Castiglione’s combination of two very different artistic traditions is what makes his work so enduring and unique.

Images Courtesy of Asia House

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