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Reviewed by:
  • Esquif sur l´océan de la peinture by Shen Zongqian
  • Antonio José Mezcua López
Shen Zongqian. Esquif sur l´océan de la peinture 芥舟學畫編. Translated and annotated by Yolaine Escande. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2019. xli, 269, pp., illus. ISBN 9782251449470 (paperback).

This book provides a magnificent translation into French of a foundational text about the practice and theory of literati painting in eighteenth-century China. The translation is thoroughly annotated and has a very enlightening introduction. Pitched at researchers and academics, it is also quite usable by artists and painting practitioners who wish to dive deep into the original Chinese texts, which cursory introductions to the subject by "Chinese painting professors" in the West rarely offer. The translation provides lengthy terminological explanations helpful to readers unfamiliar with the technical pictorial vocabulary used in eighteenth-century Chinese. An exemplary academic rigor combined with an explanatory clarity makes the work very accessible to those who are uninitiated in Chinese culture.

As Escande points out in her introduction, the translation of this treatise fills a void in texts dealing with eighteenth-century orthodox painting, which due to negative connotations the term orthodox held in twentieth-century historiography did not arouse the interest of many researchers. Compared to other circles of painters, such as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, Zhu Da 朱耷 (1626–1705), or Shi Tao 石濤 (1642–1707), Shen Zongqian 沈宗騫 (1736–1820) has been considered a tiresomely conservative painter by many Western critics. But, as is often the case, modern notions applied to historical phenomena can constrain our understanding of a historical reality that was multiform, ambiguous, and full of nuances and contradictions. Both the notion of orthodoxy and the pictorial schools of eighteenth-century China were in fact much more complex. This is why the translation of this treatise is a very important step in beginning to understand the complexity and to fill the methodological void of the [End Page 470] intellectual and artistic world of the orthodox literati of China in the eighteenth century.

Escande points out that, while Shen Zongqian falls neatly into the category of the orthodox painters who followed Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636) and the four Wangs—Wang Shimin 王時敏 (1592–1680), Wang Jian 王鑒 (1598–1677), Wang Hui 王翬 (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi 王原祁 (1642–1715)—in his practice as a painter he defies what we understand about literati painters as they have been regarded by previous scholars. According to Dong Qichang, a literati painter painted for the mere pleasure of painting, in a totally amateur exercise, and never stooped to paint for money or to obtain material benefit. Authors such as Craig Clunas have already refuted that supposed disinterest in material incentives among Ming painters, adducing that, on the contrary, painting was a gift included in those luxury objects that were part of the complex network of exchanges and gifts of the world of Ming intellectuals.1 Escande, on the other hand, points out that Shen Zongqian was both a literati painter and a professional painter and that this fact forces us to rethink the notion of orthodoxy in the Qing dynasty (1636–1912), since we see that it was not only the painters considered to be eccentric, such as Shi Tao, who dedicated themselves to painting professionally but also the painters considered "conservatives" and orthodox who did so, without ceasing to profess adherence to the distinction between these two modes.

The translation of this treatise in turn puts into broader perspective the subject of the painting treatises of the Qing dynasty. As Escande points out, until now in Western languages we only had the extremely technical Jieziyuan huazhan 芥子園畫傳 (Manual of Painting the Garden inside a Mustard Seed, 1679) by Wang Gai 王槩 (late seventeenth century)2 or the poetic and philosophically rich Huayulu 畫語錄 (Words about Painting) of Shi Tao.3 The value of Shen Zongqian's text is that it is located between the two extremes: it is not a practical manual in the style of the manuals that began to be published around the end of Ming (1368–1644) for those who wanted to access high culture, nor is it located in the abstract philosophical realm of Shi Tao's work. Instead, it combines...


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