Meet Giuseppe Castiglione — a gifted Italian Jesuit master artist with a Chinese name, who was a court painter to three generations of Qing emperors.
Giuseppe Castiglione, let alone Lang Shining, are hardly household names in the West. And while most Chinese art students might not recognise the first name, there is an excellent chance they are familiar with the second.
We are talking, of course, about the same person, an extraordinarily talented young painter from Milan, Italy, who travelled to China in the 16th Century as a young Jesuit missionary to spend the rest of his life teaching and painting three consecutive Qing emperors.
Castiglione was born in 1688 in Milan, and by 19 had been identified by the Jesuits for his artistic skill and was taught the greatest techniques of the Italian Renaissance. On the day of his initiation into the Jesuits in 1707 he was assigned to China, where his mission was to serve the imperial court as a painter so as to promote Jesuit policy in Beijing. While he appeared to have limited success in attracting religious converts in the Qing Court, he lasting legacy was, as Marco Musillo wrote in The Shining Inheritance: Italian Painters at the Qing Court, 1699-1812 was to “integrate, fuse, and translate European and Chinese techniques and elements to create a distinctive high Qing court style”.
“The Qing dynasty Kangxi Emperor had requested that Jesuit experts in astronomy, painting, cartography and mechanics be sent to his court in the Forbidden City, where the Jesuits had attained a well-earned reputation, since the days of [Jesuit leader] Matteo Ricci, of bringing the most advanced Western knowledge and skills in science, mechanics and the arts in addition to their missionary work.”
Whereas many Christian missionaries around the world at the time tried to impose their religion with condescension – and often by force – China has been an advanced civilization for millennia was not about to adopt an alien religion from warlike foreigners on face value. But when Matteo Ricci arrived in China in 1582 he put aside the bible and attempted to create trust by engaging with Chinese culture while sharing the most recent advances in Western technology, science [in particular cartography and astronomy] and the arts. Jesuit missionaries in China also learnt the language and adopted Chinese names.
Castiglione arrived in Beijing in 1715, taking up the challenge with aplomb of learning the Chinese language and artistic skills. In good time he began painting works that combined European techniques like chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow), linear perspective and realism with Chinese painting, symbolism and pigments. Castiglione differed from his Jesuit artistic predecessors by overcoming aesthetic chasm between European and Chinese tastes by combining the best of both into a new style that continues to astound and charm art lovers around the world.
Castiglione’s new Xianfa (“line method”) school of painting quickly became the favoured style of Emperor Kangxi, then his son Yongzheng. During the latter’s reign, Castiglione’s most famous paintings, Gathering of Auspicious Signs (1723) and the 7.7-metre-long scroll One Hundred Horses boosted his fame.
The now ageing Italian’s success peaked with Kangxi’s grandson, Qianlong, who loved him like a member of his own family, and who protected and championed him during a time when it was increasingly dangerous to be a Christian in China. Qianlong elevated Castiglione to official court painter in 1736, then in 1748 to administrator of the imperial parks and vice-president of the six boards, the highest rank ever attained by a Jesuit.
The Emperor also recognised the power of this higher mode of artistic expression. To help keep the fragmented, multi-ethnic Chinese empire unified, Qianlong commissioned Castiglione to represent his image to different constituents, including Manchu warrior, Han royalty and Buddhist reincarnation.
Castiglione continued to blend European and Eastern aesthetics. He was even a competent architect, whose most important works included the magnificent Western-style pavilions in the Old Summer Palace, commissioned by Qianlong in 1747. Sadly, these were razed, ironically, by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War in the 1860s. Castiglione died in Beijing in 1766, 51 years after he arrived in China. Most of his surviving works, however, are housed in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum in Taipei.
This story first appeared on Prestige Online Hong Kong.