- Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China
In Pictures for Use and Pleasure, the distinguished art historian James Cahill endeavors to expand the proper boundaries of later Chinese (post-Song or post-thirteenth century) painting. In offering novel perspectives on the history of later Chinese art, Cahill carries on the same spirit that was so evident in The Painter’s Practice (1994).1 In the present work, his aim is to legitimize and encourage the serious and systematic study of “vernacular painting,” which refers to “a great body of painting, created over the centuries by studio artists working in the cities, artists who produced pictures as required for diverse everyday domestic and other uses” (p. 3). These paintings “were intended not so much for pure aesthetic appreciation as for hanging on particular occasions such as New Year’s celebrations and birthdays, or for serving particular functions, such as setting the tone in certain rooms of the house or illustrating a story.” They were “executed in the polished ‘academic’ manner of fine-line drawing and colors, usually on silk, and were valued for their elegant imagery and their lively and often moving depictions of subjects that answered the needs and desires of those who acquired and hung them.” Equally important, they “fell outside the categories of painting praised by critics and preserved by collectors” (p. 3) and have thus been both overlooked and undervalued. For Cahill to recover this “lost” area of Chinese painting has required “years of looking through odd corners of museums, poring over old reproduction books and auction catalogs, and gathering slides and photographs” (p. vii). In this respect, the author has provided an invaluable service to future generations of scholars who might be interested in the study of such images.
The book is loosely organized into five chapters, each of which reflects the author’s wide-ranging interests and knowledge. Cahill’s primary concern is to trace the stylistic development of vernacular painting during the High Qing period (here, roughly 1644–1800). In particular, he describes and explains, again in largely stylistic terms, the emergence and flourishing of a subgenre that he has dubbed meiren hua or “beautiful-woman pictures” in the late eighteenth century. Not surprisingly, the fifth and final chapter of the book, “Beautiful Women and the Courtesan Culture,” is wholly devoted to this phenomenon. In the first four [End Page 299] chapters of the book, the author addresses basic questions that grew directly out of his initial interest in the subgenre of meiren hua: “Who were the artists who did the generic pictures of women, meiren hua and others? What else did these artists paint? Why were their works so marginalized as low-class? Why have so many of their works been . . . misattributed and misrepresented?” (p. 3).
In chapter 1, “Recognizing Vernacular Painting,” the author answers the last two of these questions by mounting a negative critique of the institutional processes and practices of art collecting and canon formation, both inside and outside of China. His most scathing criticism is directed at those “beliefs and attitudes, based in the dogma of traditional Chinese literati-painting theory, that have dominated our studies” (p. 5). According to Cahill, this matrix of dominant beliefs and deeply ingrained attitudes is best encapsulated in “the form of an unchallenged equation” about later Chinese painting, which has proved “surprisingly tenacious” and has “hampered independent and innovative directions in Chinese painting studies”: “scholar-amateurism = brushwork = calligraphy = self-expression = disdain for representation = high-mindedness = high quality” (p. 5). Due to a “consistent pattern of neglect and marginalization,” the vernacular paintings at the heart of the book “are seldom mentioned in literary sources” and “only thinly represented in major collections and publications,” all of which has compelled Cahill to search for images from “untraditional holdings” (p. 27). Having painstakingly assembled and assessed a wide range of vernacular paintings, he then boldly sets out in subsequent chapters to clarify “some broad arthistorical, geographical...