The Painting that Fooled an Emperor

In 2015, I was invited to present a paper at the Palace Museum in Beijing. The subject of the conference was one of the finest collections of art ever assembled: the rare Chinese paintings owned by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796). Among the treasures at the Honolulu Museum of Art is a painting that once belonged to this emperor. It is a long handscroll depicting bamboo in a mountain valley, complete with a laudatory inscription by the emperor himself and several imperial seals. The painting was already three centuries old by the time Qianlong acquired it, and bears the signature and several seals of the important 15th century artist Xia Chang, as well.

Attributed to Xia Chang (1388–1470) “Pure Wind in a Mountain Valley,” China, Ming dynasty, 15th century, handscroll; ink on paper. Purchase, 1952(1665.1)


Qianlong not only inscribed the painting, but also provided it with an 18th century mounting that is still preserved, including a brocade silk outer cover and an exquisite clasp made of jade from distant Khotan. Every aspect of the painting conveys a sense of the rich material culture of the 18th century; the clasp, for example, reminds us that Qianlong waged a long military campaign in Xinjiang, and one of the results of this campaign was increased access to the world’s finest nephrite from the mountains on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The emperor’s inscription indicates that this was an artwork he especially admired, a sentiment we can well understand as we gaze upon its expressive brushwork and innovative composition.

The painting is also a forgery.

In fact, many of the paintings Qianlong so admired were forgeries. It is sometimes easy to forget how much we benefit today from the modern museum, where knowledge is freely shared and anyone can see artworks that just a few generations earlier would have been restricted to only those of extreme privilege. In the case of HoMA’s handscroll, thanks to the existence of public collections, we are now able to compare this painting with a more extensive corpus of artworks attributed to Xia Chang than that to which even Qianlong and his advisors had access, and to arrive at honest evaluations based on research by the entire scholarly community. The key to understanding Pure Wind in a Mountain Valley comes from the many seals on the painting. While those of Qianlong and the 18th century court are genuine, a detailed comparison of the artist’s seals from the 15th century with seals on other paintings by Xia Chang reveals minor but crucial discrepancies that ultimately make it clear they are not authentic. Nevertheless, the painting otherwise compares favorably with authentic works by Xia Chang, and was almost certainly made by someone close to him in time who was familiar with his style.

The question of authorship is one of the most troublesome in all of art history. Experts wage wars over whether a given artwork is indeed by the “hand of the master,” while the general public watches the emerging scandal with fascination. Efforts by museums and others to be more precise result in confusing terminology, with paintings by an artist, by a “follower,” by a “school,” “with spurious signature,” or simply “anonymous.” The unintended result of this is that some artworks become devalued and overlooked, while others are raised to the status of almost mythical “masterpieces.” However, the many artworks designated as anonymous or otherwise “after” the legends of the art world are inherently interesting in their own right, and often present opportunities for learning at least as significant as the “masterpieces.”

For example, consider an artist from the European cultural sphere whose life overlapped with that of Xia Chang, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Imagine for a moment that on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe (after quarantines have been lifted, of course), you visit the Louvre in Paris to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Jostling with crowds to get as close as possible to the double layer of barriers keeping people twelve feet away, you finally catch a glimpse of the fabled painting behind its 1.5-inch layer of bulletproof glass, before being shoved away by the next person waiting in line. A few days later in Milan, you go to the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see—having made reservations six months earlier—Leonardo’s Last Supper, after moving through multiple climate-controlled chambers to reduce the impact of both the outside air and your own heat after a long day of eating pasta and drinking Moscato. Yes, you know that virtually none of the original pigment survives, but perhaps that one tiny bit of blue on Christ’s robe was actually painted by the master himself….

In all likelihood, neither of these experiences gave you much insight into the artistic context into which Leonardo emerged and to which he contributed so much. But, did you also examine Bernardo Zenale’s (c. 1460–1526) frescoes on the other side of the refectory from Last Supper? Or perhaps spend time along the way studying the dozens (or even hundreds) of paintings by contemporaries, students, and followers of Leonardo readily accessible in the Louvre and other museums across Europe? If so, you likely had a much richer experience, and gained a deep appreciation not only for Leonardo and the Italian Renaissance, but also for the general importance of art to history and culture. Perhaps along the way you even realized that the artists of the Italian Renaissance themselves gained their appreciation of anatomy, developed their aesthetics and found their inspiration from anonymous paintings and sculptures from antiquity, many of which were in turn Roman copies of lost Greek originals.

The next time you visit HoMA or any other museum (after they have reopened, of course), once you’ve worked through the required list of masterpieces, seek out the many artworks by a “follower,” “school,” “with a spurious signature,” or simply “anonymous”; you might be surprised by how much they have to offer. When you come to Pure Wind in a Mountain Valley or another similar “forgery,” recall the words of Gustav Ecke, HoMA’s first Curator of Asian Art: “The prerequisite of quality, one would assume, should be authenticity. But this is not always so in the sphere of Chinese painting.”

Attributed to Xia Chang (1388–1470)
Pure Wind in a Mountain Valley
China, Ming dynasty, 15th century
Handscroll; ink on paper
Purchase, 1952 (1665.1)

– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art