October 29, 2010
February 13, 2011
Maurice J. Sullivan Gallery (16)
The city of Yangzhou in the modern Chinese province of Jiangsu served as an important trading center starting in the Tang dynasty (618-906). It is situated near the juncture of the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal (the world’s longest artificial river), which connected Beijing with Hangzhou and functioned as the primary transportation route for goods between north and south. Yangzhou was strategically located for national trade between the inner regions of China, the prosperous south, and the capital during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911), and especially played a key role in the salt trade, a cornerstone of the traditional Chinese economy.
Wealthy merchants built elaborate estates in Yangzhou during the 17th and 18th centuries, attracting artists to the area. By the 18th century, Yangzhou had developed a reputation as a center for the arts akin to the more established centers of nearby Hangzhou and Suzhou. The three cities formed a rich nexus of collectors, patrons, and artists that gave southern China an unchallenged position of cultural authority.
During the 18th century, artists in the region developed a distinctive style of painting—eventually known as the Yangzhou School—that emphasized stylistic innovation and bold brushwork. While numerous artists contributed to this style, later historians later elevated eight painters in particular, dubbing them the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou. Although many of the Eight Eccentrics frequented the same social circles, their works are diverse, and they were not identified as a coherent school until after their lifetimes. What unifies the art of the Eight Eccentrics is a spirit of experimentation in technique and subject matter. The term “eccentric” could equally be applied to the artists’ personalities—several of the Eight Eccentrics cultivated artistic personae that sometimes were as much of a draw to patrons as much as the inherent aesthetic qualities of their work.
The Yangzhou School often is considered to mark the beginning of modern Chinese painting. The Eight Eccentrics’ innovative use of color and spontaneous brushwork was elaborated upon by the artists of the Shanghai School in the 19th century, and was continued into the early 20th century by many of China’s leading artists, through whom the influence of the Yangzhou School continues to the present day. —SHAWN EICHMAN, CURATOR OF ASIAN ART