CLP 84: 2005 "Late Paintings of Women in the Univ. of Michigan Museum of Art: Asking New Questions." Symposium, Seattle Art Museum

Paper for Seattle Art Museum symposium, April 17, 2005

"Late Paintings of Women in the U. Mich. Museum of Art: Asking New Questions" James Cahill

S.S. (Wen Zhengming #7 + detail?) Since neither Dick Edwards nor Marshall Wu, who both had a lot to do with bringing the U. Mich. collection together, can be here, I want to reminisce a bit about its formation, during the decades I’ve been somewhat distantly involved in it. Apart from some early acquisitions from the 1930s, the building of the collection was mainly accomplished by three people. The first is the late Max Loehr, who in the 1950s (besides teaching many students, including myself) pursued and acquired a number of paintings for the Museum, including this landscape by Wen Zhengming (about which he published an article). Marshall Wu, in his Orchid Pavilion Gathering catalogue, raises questions about its authenticity and suspects it’s really by Wen Chengming’s follower Chu Chieh. He may well be right. Loehr was mainly interested in style in a broad sense, and wrote about the painting in those terms; he was insufficiently concerned with questions of authenticity. My generation, following traditional Chinese scholarship, became so engaged with authenticity questions for a time that we neglected other, more interesting aspects of the paintings.

S,S. The second is Richard Edwards, who taught Chinese art history there for many years from 1960 and oversaw the acquisition of more fine paintings, including the Sheng Mao-yeh "Orchid Pavilion Gathering" handscroll and Zeng Jing's "Portrait of Pan Qintai," both painted in 1621. The third responsible person is Marshall Wu, who was Curator of Asian Art there for twenty-some years and was mainly responsible for the most recent acquisitions, including (I believe) several of the paintings I’ll speak about later. Marshall Wu also wrote the detailed and highly informative entries, based on exhaustive research, for the Orchid Pavilion Gathering catalog published in 2000, with its separate volume of notes, many of which are mini-essays in themselves.

I myself was the Chinese art curator, and before that a fellowship student, at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. from the early1950s until 1965, the period during which some of the U.M. Museum of Art's collection of Chinese paintings was coming together, and was involved in a few of its acquisitions--pieces which, after I had I recommended them unsuccessfully to the Freer director and vice-director, Archibald Wenley and John Pope, I then recommended with more success to Max Loehr or Dick Edwards. These include

S,S. The paintings by Zhou Chen and Li Shida, both of which I recommended as additions to the Freer collection but both were rejected. (The Chou Ch’en is another one doubted by Marshall Wu; and again, he may be right, I haven’t seen it for a long time.) As many of you know, the relations between the Freer and the University of Michigan are especially close because Freer, a Detroit man, first offered his collection to the U. of Mich. which turned it down, and then gave it, as you know, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Freer forgivingly established a fund at U. Mich. for the study of Asian art in connection with the Freer Gallery, and students regularly go back and forth between the two institutions, which also jointly publish the journal Ars Orientalis.

S,S. My subject today, however, is none of those, but a group of later and (most traditional Chinese connoisseurs would say) less important works: the paintings of women by or attributed to the late Qing masters Gai Qi and Fei Danxu, active respectively in the first decades and the second quarter of the 19th century. Both specialized in paintings of women, and a great many surviving works of that kind are by them or attributed to them. The name and seals of Gai Qi, in particular, appear on a great number of figure paintings of the late period. There is, then, a serious problem of authenticity; and the fact that the UM Museum's collection contains three versions of (more or less) the same composition, two with Gai Qi signatures and the third with the signature of his older contemporary Yu Ji, makes this a group very useful for pedagogical purposes, teaching students how to distinguish real from fake, and how to conduct research that backs up, or alters, the judgments one might make on the basis of connoisseurship. Marshall Wu's long and heavily annotated essay on these three paintings is a model for how such research might be conducted; it even extended to borrowing for comparison a set of four paintings, one of them with the same composition, from the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan. (I won’t go through his argument; would take too much time. Generally convincing, although I would differ on a few points, as we’ll see.).

At left, #43 in catalog., which Marshall Wu accepts as real Gai Qi. “A Lady in Her Study, with Attendants,” dated 1821, acquired by Museum in 1973. At right, catalog #44, also signed Gai Qi, undated, and acquired in 1982 at auction, presumably because the relationship between them would be interesting topic for study and connoisseurship training, as indeed it is. It partly repeats the other one in comp., but has dif subject: "presenting lichee fruit on ice platter." This one Marshall Wu doubts, along with two other versions of composition: the other one in their collection, which I’ll show in a moment, and a version in the Fukuoka Art Museum, where it is part of a set of four. None of these others qualifies, in his view, as a Gai Qi original.

I’m not going to challenge his argument, because I haven’t had a chance to study the two pictures in originals (saw them long ago, before I thought of treating them in a paper); the one at left seems quite consistent with other Gai Qi pictures, of which I’ll show a few later; the one at right I wouldn’t reject immediately, on the basis of the reproduction—there’s nothing obviously wrong with it, to my eye--but I’ll simply reserve judgement. I want to say only that the fact that it repeats in large part the other composition isn’t a strike against it, because, as I’ll show later, artists who did such pictures frequently repeated their own compositions.

-- S. Third ptg of set, catalog #45, acquired in 1990, again from auction and presumably for the same reason, as a study piece. This one is not signed by Gai Qi, but by the older artist Yu Ji, who also specialized in pictures of women. This one is quite rightly rejected by Marshall Wu, who points out (p. 277 center right) that certain details in it are misunderstood. I haven’t detail slides to show these, but the mistakes he writes about can be made out in reproduction. What should be an ice tray according to title is in fact red lacquer with gold design; lichees are too big and too pink, looking more like peaches; women in ptg all have same hairdos, where they should be distinguished by age and rank. ) He argues that copies can often be detected by the copyist's misunderstanding of representational forms; and since that’s an argument I myself have been making often in recent years, sometimes vehemently and against opposition, I find his use of it completely convincing.

-- S. This is a genuine picture by Yu Ji, in Chinese museum, based on Song poetic couplet written in upper right: woman comes out of doorway to gaze at flowering tree in rain. Touch of melancholy, sense of transience of beauty. Original, moving work.

-- S. Detail. Yu Ji, as an older specialist in this genre, depicts women with more feeling and variety than artists of the later period, including Gai Qi; by their time a greater degree of conventionalization has set in, women’s faces and postures more stereotyped, themes of such poetic subtlety less common. Michigan ptg with Yu Ji signature certainly not up to his usual standard. But I don’t mean to argue that quality is a safe criterion for authenticity—Marshall Wu’s reasons better.

--S. As for other works by Gai Qi, they are so diverse that a distinct style for him can hardly be recognized. A certain facial type—but even this isn’t absolutely consistent; ways of drawing robes, and so forth. I can’t claim to have made such a study, in any case. This one in Japanese col., lady inscribing poem on autumn leaf (old story).

-- S. Another, ideal portrait of Tang-period courtesan poet Yu Xiangji. Learned and talented woman, and depicted as such.

This brings me to one point to do with the real Gai Qi painting (at left) on which I would take a position different from Marshall Wu's. He writes ([P. 274) that pictures of female scholars are "quite unusual," and goes on about how literacy among women was discouraged in China, out of fear that it "might instill new and potentially troublesome ideas," such as that their confinement to domestic realms and activities was to be resisted. From this he argues that "the female scholar in Gai Qi's painting," as well as her setting, "are likely products of the artist's fertile imagination." And he speculates that the artist was doing this either to protest the "inequity and mistreatment of Chinese women," a positive reading, or "using the subject matter to amuse a patron," a negative one. But recent writings by specialists in Chinese women's studies, notably Dorothy Ko’s Teachers of the Inner Chambers, have shown that women's engagement in literature and general culture from the late Ming on was much more extensive than was once believed; and correspondingly, paintings of scholarly women from this period, whether representing real or ideal women, are in fact not unusual at all, but are fairly numerous--the only reason one might think otherwise is that they are far less likely than landscapes or portraits of men to be reproduced and exhibited. We are, that is, in the same kind of circular situation as with most of the kinds of vernacular or non-elite, non-literati painting I'm working on these days: there aren't enough of them, one can say, to make a significant genre; and the reason there aren't enough is that they weren't taken seriously enough in their time to be preserved, or to be published and exhibited now if they were preserved. Round and round in a circle, which badly needs to be broken. – S. A few examples. Qiu Ying’s daughter Qiu Zhu, or Qiu Shih (her name is uncertain), did many ptgs of women, some of them, like this one, engaged in literary composition, or writing a letter, gazing at a landscape screen behind her, perhaps because she could not have the same access to real LS as men had;

-- S. The early Qing woman painter Fan Xueyi, working in Suzhou as Qiu Ying and Qiu Zhu had and following their style, did this one;

-- S. and Cui Hui, a figure specialist active in the Beijing area in the early to mid-18th century, painted this very fine imaginary portrait of the Song poet Li Qingzhao (sorry I haven’t a color slide.) (describe)

(I will introduce here, and go on to elaborate a bit later, the hypothesis that many paintings of this kind, along with certain other types, were done primarily for the use and enjoyment of women. It’s an idea I’ve been developing lately, in various directions, and have presented in lectures at a number of places. I offer in that lecture whatever evidence I can bring together to support that hypothesis, can’t do all of it here.)

Characteristic, I believe, of paintings done for an audience and clientele of women is their favoring of subjects in which women appear in more dignified and independent roles than they had traditionally occupied in Chinese painting; often they are roles previously assumed by men in paintings.

S, S. The paintings of this group are thus, I believe, to be kept separate, even if only provisionally and without firm evidence, from the more familiar meiren or "beautiful women" paintings intended for the enjoyment of men, in which by contrast the women are presented as objects of desire, and strike provocative poses and project come-hither looks outward to the presumed male viewer. (Leng Mei, 1724).

S,S. Another characteristic of these pictures—the ones for which, I believe, the intended audience was in large part feminine (not exclusively that, of course)--is that they are more likely than other types and genres to exist in multiples. Examples: Qiu Ying series of pictures of famous women of past. I know of five or six versions, all attrib. to Qiu Ying. Women not even identified as same from one scroll to another, not in same order.

S,S. Among the types included in my hypothetical group are handscrolls illustrating stories of special interest to women, such as the Xixiang-ji or Western Chamber story, a favorite of women readers, or Lady Wen-chi’s Return to China. Such scrolls combine text and pictures, and could be enjoyed in the quiet of one’s boudoir or study, reading the text and looking at the pictures. They vary in quality and certainly in date. But I am inclined to believe now that trying to find a “genuine” one and rejecting all the others as copies or fakes is going in the wrong direction; that they were acquired and appreciated by women as enjoyable and instructive pictures, not as works by particular masters. In that context, replicating them, so that everyone who wanted one could have one, makes sense. We are dealing, that is, with a mode of reproduction that isn’t simply forgery, as it later came to be misunderstood to be.

S,S. Another popular subject for these was Lady Su Hui and her palindromes. All of us who have been in the field long enough have seen quite a few different versions of these, mostly in old and minor collections; we’ve paid no attn., taking them all to be fake Qiu Yings. But, as I say, I now believe that’s going in the wrong direction. These belong mostly to the scorned category of Suzhou-pian, or Suzhou-pieces, usually dismissed as unworthy of notice, a category of forgeries.

-- S. Corresponding detall of another version. What I believe now is that there were in practice at the same time two different kinds or systems of collecting or using paintings, one of which (almost exclusively practiced by men) emphasized authenticity and the hand of the master, and insisted on the painting as a unique object; the other of which emphasized the image and the story or circumstances associated with it, and allowed replication of such images, with small concern for authorship and authenticity. Many pictures of the latter kind are attrib. to Qiu Ying, often w. signatures; but this is a kind of convention, operative in Suzhou which was the center of production for such works; the “Qiu Ying” attrib. prob. wasn’t really believed, wasn’t what the women who acquired and enjoyed these ptgs really cared about ...

We may find this idea hard to accept, since we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that connoisseurship based on recognition of artists’ hands and individual style is the only high-level kind; the other kind is low-class, and would be insulting if attributed to women. But if we can break that bias, and realize that paintings can be read for content, for stories and feelings, just as texts can, we can accept more easiiy what I’m proposing.

S.S. Metropolitan Mus. In NYC owns two versions of Qiu Ying ptg of woman in bamboo grove. I use this to stand in for a ptg by same artist of woman outdoors in snow, described in Hong Lou Meng as hanging in chambers of Grandmother Jia. (Two examples are described there of ptgs of women hanging in women’s chambers; both present the women outdoors, and are old ptgs by famous artists. The novel also includes two descriptions of ptgs of women hanging in men’s bedrooms; these, by contrast, are both apparently up-to-date and anonymous ptgs, evidently quite realistic or illusionistic, and probably more like Leng Mei we saw a bit ago, sexy.)

S,S. details. Even Met curator, Mike Hearn, not sure which is good one; nor am I (tend to favor one at left, although other has more the look of age.)

S.S. All this, which might seem peripheral to my subject, brings us back to ptg in U. Mich. Museum col. by Fei Tan-hsu, another specialist in ptgs of women active later in the 19c; this one dtd. 1847 and represents Nymph of Lo River. Marshall Wu has long, interesting essay on this, reproducing a number of other versions and discussing them. In the end he concludes not only that the U. Michigan painting is a copy, but that all of six other versions he has found are also copies, some perhaps produced by printing! (He writes that the Michigan painting was “purchased [by the donor] in 1980 from a small noodle shop in Macao.”) An album leaf version with Fei Tan-hsu’s signature he takes to be a genuine work, and he rejects all the others.

S.S. (Another of the other versions, in study col. of Central Acad. In Beijing.) Howard Rogers had already, three years before the Michigan catalog was published, brought these various versions together in an article titled “Second Thoughts on Multiple Recensions” (whch followed an article of mine centered on a painting of this theme) He makes the argument that while we can’t accept all the versions uncritically as works by Fei Tan-hsu, and discrimination of the kind Marshall Wu practices certainly needs to be done, we should not begin with the assumption that there can be only one original and all the rest are copies. It seems quite likely that the artist and his studio produced them in multiples.

-- S. (Still another, from a Chinese auction catalog.) Howard, after considering recorded and known cases of copying and multiple versions over the centuries, ends with the assumption that these, or most of them, were the outcome of a studio mode of production overseen by Fei Tan-hsu; he writes that “each of these paintings may be held a real and genuine member of the limited edition conceived and issued by Fei Tan-hsu . . .”

-- S. The article of mine that occasioned this response by Howard was titled “Where Did the Nymph Hang?” and introduced a leaf from an album of erotic pictures by the early Qing master Gu Jianlong, one of whose specialties this was. The album is known only in an old reproduction book, and some of the leaves, including this one, have been bowdlerized for publication—the woman, now shown waving a feather duster to frighten away two rats, was originally joined in bed by a lover. I used the picture as an indication that paintings of this subject were suited to hanging in a woman’s boudoir, or thought to be so by the artist; and, as I mentioned before, I’ve subsequently been exploring the possibility that certain kinds of paintings were made in the late Ming and Qing principally for an audience and clientele of women--the argument I alluded to earlier. The conclusion it leads to is that we have been, all this time, asking the wrong questions of these pictures, which were not done for male collectors to acquire as genuine works by this or that artist. In this context, the production of pictures of the Goddess of the Luo River in multiples makes perfectly good sense.

S,S. Let me show a few others (leaving aside the familiar Gu Kaizhi-attrib. pictures), to fill in context for Fei Danxu’s. This handscroll is by Qiu Ying, and is cataloged as a “Nymph” (etc.—Ellen Laing’s article. “Beauty in Spring Thoughts.” Not clearly separated? Amorous woman in either case.)

S,S. One in the old collection of the British Museum bears seals of Xu Mei, painter active in the early decades of the 18c who was sometimes active in court circles and partaking in collaborative projects. He is the artist of a particularly fine erotic album, one of the relatively few for which the artist can be identified.

S,S. At right, a fan ptg version by Fu Derong, early Qing woman ptr (from The Jade Terrace exhib. Although the authors of that ground-breaking and generally admirable catalog avoid finding, within the overall production of ptgs by women, tendencies to favor certain subjects, I believe that in the end we can, and that ptgs of women and female goddesses (including Guanyin) are among them. Other one isn’t Nymph, but another goddess, Magu, ptd in 1782 by little-known artist named Chang Yen-ch’ang.

-- S. Another Magu picture, this one by Hua Yan, w. same long insc. written on it, the account of Magu from the Shen-xian zhuan, biog. Of immortals, by the 4th cent. Daoist Ge Hong. Ptgs of Magu were commonly hung or presented on the occasions of women’s birthdays; and again these combine a lengthy text with a picture. It’s too early to speculate on the significance of pictures accompanied by long texts (these are hanging-scroll counterparts of the handscrolls with familiar subjects and long texts) being prominent among the types I believe were probably aimed especially at women, and the same is true of the circumstance of their tending to exist in multiples. All this is for further research; for now, I only observe and speculate.

S,S. Another goddess, I’m not clear who it is, appears in a painting by Gai Qi that again exists in several versions. This one in Los Angeles County Museum of Art; another version was in Tomioka Col. In Japan; and I’ve seen several others. So, we begin to discern, without being able to explain it other than speculatively, a practice of doing pictures of female deities in multiples, probably for sale to women for birthdays and other occasions in their lives, and for hanging in their chambers.

S,S. I will conclude by pointing out that this practice can be marked as early as the late Ming, the time of Chen Hongshou, whose “Female Immortals Presenting Symbols of Longevity” exists in at least five versions. It would appear from their style that they date from the 1630s, when Chen was active as an unambiguously professional master, and employed studio assistants. Subject may be Magu: unclear, at least to me. Howard Rogers, writing about one of them, says that ptgs of Magu were also hung on the occasion of wedding anniversaries. (These in Palace Mus. Beijing and Taipei.) I called attn. to these already in my Painter’s Practice book, but w/o especially connecting them to a possible clientele of women.

S,S. Two more, private mus. in Beijing, auction cat. I’m not saying that all of them are genuine; some may not have involved hand of Chen Hongshou at all. But the right question isn’t, any more, “Which is the genuine picture?” Turned out in multiples in studio for functional purpose, sold to anyone who came in to buy one. Let me conclude with an outrageously incautious and premature suggestion. It is that the selection and hanging of occasional and other functional paintings in the household, such as New Year’s and birthday pictures, which make up some of the types treated in my (still unpublished) book Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China, may well have been mainly the responsibility of the principal women of the household, who were more concerned with getting a good and serviceable picture than with authorship and authenticity, while the men were responsible for the family “collection” of prestigious name-artist works. It will take a lot more searching for evidence before we can put such a speculation on any kind of solid footing (and I will appreciate any clues you may come upon in your research and pass on to me). But at least, I think, we are asking new and more interesting questions.

Thank you.

(Howard in "Second Thoughts on Multiple Recessions" (Kaikodo Journal V, Autumn 1997.)

Slides needed:

- several versions of Chen Hongshou "Magu & Attendant." (Have KK/T; others in drawer at home?

- Fei Danxu in Japan? Tomioka's? or have slide made.

- Pictures of literary ladies, to go with Gai Qi. Jin Ping Mei illus. w. one on far wall; ptgs by Qiu Zhu, etc.

Dear Prof. Cahill,
We have been working on getting the slides for you, I'm sorry to keep you waiting. We've had slides made from transparencies for 7 of the 9 on your list. Below are the two we don't have yet. We've asked Michigan for them and available details for others you mentioned. I should be able to get them to you on the 16th, either at the hotel or at the dinner.

Thank you, Sarah

44. Kai Ch'i, "Presenting Lychee Fruits on a Carved Ice Platter."

don’t have 45. Yü Chi, same title.don’t have

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