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Chinese Oil Paintings: Oil works painted and sold to foreigners in the southeastern coastal areas


While the European missionaries in Oing court followed instructions from the emperors to paint non-Chinese and non-Western oils, there rose a group of artists in Macao, Guangzhou and Hong Kong who took oil painting as an art form, some being artists from Europe who came on ships of commerce, some being Chinese artists who tried to sell foreigners their paintings on themes of Chinese subject matter. Among the previous group, George Chinnery remained in Chinafor the longest time and was the most well known of these artists, regarded as the initiator of the Guangzhou modern school, He had quite a number of followers. Unlike Castiglione, Chinnery was an artist by profession. As there was not much soil for oil painting to develop in mainland at that time, Chinnery's influence was exerted mostly on those artists who painted and sold works to foreigners.

Guan Zuolin rose first among the artists in Guangzhou who painted specifically for a foreign audience, according to The Nanhai County History, Guan Zuolin studied in Europe and America for painting and after he returned to China he established a business in Guangzhou to paint portraits during "the liaqing Period (1800-1815)", "It was the first time Chinese people set eyes on oil works," the book said, "and his business surprised even foreigners." We assume that Guan studied abroad approximately inthe mid-Oianlong Period. He is the first oil painter Guan Qiaocnang-Self-Portrait whose activities have    been documented. Lin Gua followed Chinnery's style and was more successful than Guan, both in technique and in sales4 The successful business of selling oils paintings to foreigners boosted an increase in shops selling oil paints, as many as thirty shops were established on 13 Street where foreigner companies gathered in Guangzhou.

In the 19th Century, Lam qua was the most successful artist who sold works to foreigners. His business spread from Guangzhouto Hong Kong, where he established a branch of his business. His works were well-received depicting life and people in Guangdong, and impressed with their bright colours. In 1840 the Opium War broke out between Chinaand England, which brought the opening of five ports to foreigners. Guangzhouwas no longer the sole port for business in central Asia. Oil paint shops in Guangzhoubegan to decline, and were finished off by the arrival of photography in China. About 1860, the mid years of Xianfeng Period, photography spread to almost all the coastal cities in China and oil painters businessmen switched to photography.

Technically speaking, oil paintings sold to foreigners were not inferior to those done by missionaries in the court. To cater to foreign tastes, the works painted for foreigners adopted as many European features as they could, and were often possessed of a vividness and humour that works by royal artists could not. Although their contribution to Chinese oil was not remarkable, some people claimed that if they had been in Europe, those artists might have developed a new genre. The fact that, as the earliest oil artists and by their own effort they had grasped the European techniques within a short period, had heralded a new leaf in the history of oil painting, a leaf for Chinese artists.

Study oil painting abroad

The above-mentioned artists began and stopped-equally abruptly-their artistic experience, at a combination of political and economic changes in Chinese society. They did not leave much to history. In this century, the styles they initiated could only be seen in small cities and towns, in works on glass or board that had survived the times. Thanks to the young artists who went abroad to study art, European oil painting really put down roots in China.

Most of the students sent abroad by the Oing Court were for military and scientific studies. Li Tiefu (1869-1952) was probably the first one to study art, as far as we know. In the thirteenth year of Guangxu Period (1887), supported by Li reifu-Portrait of Feng Gangbai his relatives, he went to North America, studying first at Arlington  School, then at New York  Art  Academy. Later, he taught as associate professor at the American  National  Academyfor Art and Design? Between 1905 and 1925 he studied under American artists J.S. Sargent (1856-1925) and W.M. Chase (1849-1916). His portrait skills were particularly remarkable: his brushstrokes unrestrained and the people he painted look natural and sincere. His style was a step on from that of Sargent and Chase. During his forty more years in America, besides painting, Li joined the revolution led by Doctor Sun Yatsen and served as an executive secretary in the Chinese Revolutionary League. He returned to China in 1931, with portrait skills above those of missionary painters, Chinese painters who painted and sold to foreigners, and for a long time no Chinese students studying abroad attained his level.

As most of his oil paintings were done abroad, his influence was not felt within China. Li Shutong (1880-1942), a student who went abroad later than he did, was to exert a bigger influence on art and art education in China. Li Shutong went to Japanin 1905, enrolled in Tokyo  Art  Schoolin 1906. Ten years before, the first group of Chinese students had arrived in Japan. In 1898, the Qing Court made it a regular policy to send students to Japan. By the time Li Shutong arrived there, there were as many as ten thousand Chinese students already engaged in studies. Karoda Shikl, a Gaikoha school artist, had studied in France. Li Shutong's style was close to impressionism but none of his oil paintings has survived. He returned to Chinain 1910, held exhibitions and taught in Tianjin, Shanghaiand Hangzhou.

Between 1912-1918, while teaching art and music at Zhejiang  Normal Schooland Nanjing  Normal  High School, he initiated painting from busts and models. "Painting from life is the best way to study and to cultivate artistic originality," he maintained. Li adopted Buddhism and became a monk in July 1918 which ended his art career. His Buddhist name was Hongyi. He died in 1942.

Li Yishi (1886-1942) studied at Glasgow Academy of Art in Britainfor five years from 1907. Later he turned to the study of physics and after receiving diplomas from two colleges he returned to Chinain 1916, to teach oil painting in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjingand Chongqing. His style was meticulous and realistic, his works in latter years 'Wm exhibiting a pursuit for characters Chen Baoyi-Portrait of Guan Zilan of Chinese culture. Besides these, there were Chen Xiaojiang, Wu Fading, Li Chaoshi who studied in France, Feng Gangbai in Mexico, and Chen Baoyi and Wang Yuezhi in Japan. Wang Yuezhi (1895-1937), otherwise named Liu Lintang, a native of Taizhong, Taiwan, successively studied in Kawabada art school and Tokyo Art School After his return in 1920, he taught oil painting in Beijingand Hangzhou. His works had features of impressionism and post impressionism. They were also endeavours, in either materials, composition, colour application and brush strokes, to probe for a Chinese style. His works mirrored his personality and experience, painful about the loss of his country's territory. His profound feeling as seen in his works made his paintings unique among those of his contemporaries.

The return of the students who had studied abroad, provided a new force in promoting oil painting as an art form, and inspired many Chinese oil painters. The marks they left in history were far deeper than missionary painters and Chinese oil artists who had painted and sold their works to foreign customers. Their influence, together with that from the missionary painters and artists painting for foreign customers, worked together to bear fruit: during the 1920s, art schools were established in many places of China.

Modern art education

The base for oil development China's modern art education began to bud during the political reform at the end of the Oing Dynasty. After trying every way-in vain­ to frustrate the trend, the Oing Court gaveYuezni-Picture of Survivors of a Great Upheaval of Taiwan Up. After the "ke ju" examination system (1934)  (examinations held by the court to chose officials) was abolished, the Qing Court issued approval to the establishment of modern schools, and allowed painting as a curriculum in primary and middle schools. The Liangjiang  Normal Schoolin Nanjingwas established in 1902 and first offered an art course in 1906, inviting Japanese artist Kei Shiomi to lecture there The course was the first ever in Chinaand comprised sketching, oil painting, watercolour, the study of perspective as subjects. The next year, Beiyang  Normal Schoolin Hebeiestablished an art course too. Teachers trained by the two schools became pioneers in the reform of traditional Chinese art education.

 After the 1911 Revolution, private art schools came into existence. Zhou Xiang and Liu Haisu in Shanghaiestablished two in which Western oil painting was taught. Although neither the teachers nor the students were well-versed in the form, they studied earnestly and held exhibitions with confidence. Systematic education of Western art began at Shanghai  Art  Academywhen a few artists returned from Japan. The academy was the first specific art school in China Encouraging diversified styles, it turned out a great number of oil painters. The academy, merged with Suzhou  Art  Schooland became East  China  Art  School, the predecessor of Nanjing Academy of Art, when the country's national education system was rearranged in 1952.

Beijing  Art  Schoolset up in 1918, was the first public art school in China, initiated by Fan Yuantao, the then minister of education. Among the teachers were Li Yishi and Wu Fading, both specialised in Western oil painting. When Lin Fengmian returned from France in 1925 he assumed presidency of the school and also worked as the head of the department Western painting. French artists were also employed. The school was the predecessor of the today's Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Advocated in 1928 by Cai Yuanpei, well-known educationalist in modern Chinese history, the National  Art  Academywas established in Hangzhou, on the bank of the West  Lake. Lin Fengmian was the president and Lin Wenzheng the dean of studies The academy, the highest academic art institute, was a copy of French art schooL Wu Dayu, Wang Yuezhi, Li Chaoshi, Cai Weilian, zhou Bichu, Fang Ganmin and others all taught Western painting there successively. The name of the academy was changed to Hangzhou National Art school, the predecessor of later Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, and today's China Academy of Fine Arts.

Besides those schools, Western oil painting was also taught in private schools in Suzhou, Wuchang, but the only place that issued a bachelor's degree in oil painting was the Central Academy Its founder, Xu Beihong (1895-1953), placed special emphasis on a strong grounding in technique. When the academy was criticised for "over-emphasising technical foundation," Lu Sibai, Xu Beihong's successor, said with humour, "We felt flattered and saw no reason to deny the accusation." The art department of the academy was the later art department in Nanjing  Normal  University.



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