Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art at the Johnson, introduces new research by Dr. Yuhua Ding, our former curatorial assistant for Asian art (updated May 20, 2021).

While completing her PhD in the History of Art at Cornell, Yuhua Ding conducted research on a group of Chinese paintings and calligraphy donated to the Johnson by Dr. Daisy Yen 嚴彩韻 (1902–1993) and her son Dr. Ray Wu (1928–2008), the late Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biology. These important artworks previously belonged to Daisy’s grandfather, Yen Shing Hou 嚴信厚 (1838–1906), a gentry-merchant, collector, and artist.

After interviewing Ray Wu’s widow, Christina, and delving into primary resources, Dr. Ding has unearthed a fascinating history of this prominent family that included both successful businessmen and research scientists, along with new insights into the art market and collecting at the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Her study has made the works’ provenance and significance more fully understood, and her extensive findings were published in the Journal of the History of Collections in 2021: https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhab008

Dr. Ding’s research coincides with the culmination of the Johnson’s efforts over the last two decades to conserve and remount many of the scrolls from this collection, through grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Now, thanks to the superb work of Nishio Conservation Studio, nearly all of the works from this collection have been conserved and made accessible for exhibition and teaching.

Yuhua Ding explores select examples from the collection.

My interest in merchant collectors and collecting began early on in my graduate studies at Cornell. In 2013 I presented “Chinese Modern Merchants as Collectors and Their First Exhibition” at a graduate symposium at the University of Illinois, where I included Yen Tze King 嚴子均, the son of Yen Shing Hou, who displayed his father’s important collection of paintings by the Four Wangs at the 1908 Shanghai exhibition. At the time I had only seen some collotype prints of Yen’s collection, so it was very exciting for me to discover that a group of paintings collected by him is housed at the Johnson Museum.

I feel so lucky that I could study this precious collection in person, appreciating its excellent artistic quality, disclosing the interesting stories behind the artworks, and tracing the collection back to the special historical moment when China transformed from empire to republic. I hope that my research will serve as a starting point for future studies of taste, collecting, and social relations among late Qing dynasty merchant elites.

The Four Wangs were followers of the art theories of Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636). Wang Shimin 王時敏 (1592–1680), Wang Jian 王鑒, Wang Hui 王翬, and Wang Yuanqi 王原祁 maintained a stronghold within imperial court taste and were largely favored by scholar-officials.

This landscape painting from 1627 is a classic example of how the eldest of the group, Wang Shimin, took Dong Qichang’s advice to model the style of Yuan dynasty master Huang Gongwang 黃公望 (1269–1354).

Yen Shing Hou collected many examples of the Four Wangs’ work. Some of these had been selected for the Liusanting Ancient Painting Exhibition, held in Shanghai in 1908, and were ranked among the best paintings there. Yen’s collection of the Four Wangs not only demonstrated his huge wealth at a time when such works fetched high prices and were in high demand, but also reflected his strong pursuit of literati taste as a way to enhance his social status between merchant and scholar.

For his most cherished pieces, Yen confidently applied his collector seal, seen in the bottom left corner of the painting.

As a calligrapher himself, Yen Shing Hou was a devoted follower of the orthodox tradition canonized by the elegant, graceful art of Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361). As a collector, Yen possessed many masterpieces by Ming and Qing calligraphers.

Among them, Theories on Painting by Qian Bojiong 錢伯炯 (1738–1812) is a fine example of this mid-Qing master’s work. His calligraphy represents a great achievement of learning after masters such as Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1638), and ultimately harkens back to the ancient masters of Song and Tang dynasties.

In this piece, Qian not only selected a passage from Dong Qichang’s Notes from the Painting-Meditation Studio (Huachanshi Suibi 畫禪室隨筆), but also sought to capture Dong’s elegant brushwork. In addition, Qian’s calligraphy in this piece shows the strength, boldness, and grandness associated with Tang master Li Yong李邕 (678–747).

This piece was recently restored for the Johnson Museum by the Nishio Conservation Studio.

Zhao Wei 趙魏 (1746–1825) was a renowned scholar in the field of jinshi, which focuses on the study of inscriptions on ancient bronze and stone objects for use as primary sources in interpreting ancient history, rituals, and politics. Zhao left many writings but no records about his painting work. Landscape in Blue-Green Manner is therefore quite a unique piece and was especially treasured by Yen Shing Hou.

This painting is an excellent example of late Qing blue-green painting, which broke free from the traditional decorative effects of this ancient landscape manner and its use of brilliant colors. Zhao closely followed the literati painting tradition in the arrangement of mountains and water in near, middle, and far distance and in the types of brushstrokes used to create the shapes of the mountains and textures of rocks. Only after applying the ink monochrome did the scholar-painter add a light layer of blue and green watercolor to create an archaistic feeling coupled with an elegant and beautiful pictorial image.

On the border of the painting a short biography of Zhao was added by Yen in his elegant and graceful calligraphy. By contrast, Zhao’s calligraphy (the long inscription above the painting) is deliberately rather eccentric, clumsy and unadorned, reflecting his interest in earlier stone and bronze inscriptions as a source of creative inspiration.