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MFA Boston receives gift of monumental Chinese scroll from Wan-go H.C. Weng
Wang Hui (Chinese, 1632–1717), Ten Thousand Li up the Yangtze River (detail), 1699. Ink and color on paper. Wan-go H. C. Weng Collection. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has received a significant gift of a 17th-century Chinese masterpiece, 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River ( Wanli Changjiang Tu) (1699), from Wan-go H.C. Weng. The prominent collector, whose family has owned the 53-foot-long scroll since 1875, has donated the work to the Museum on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Created by Wang Hui (1632–1717), the most notable painter of his day in China, the landscape painting evokes a journey along Asia’s longest waterway, the Yangzi (Yangtze) River, and incorporates references to China’s great artistic and poetic traditions. This gift enhances the holdings of paintings from the Qing (1644–1911) dynasty at the MFA, which is renowned for its collection of earlier Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) masterpieces. 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River is the fifth work by Wang Hui to enter the MFA’s collection, following two others given to the Museum by Weng. The scroll’s epic scope and expressive brushwork make it the greatest painting by Wang Hui, who played a key role in reinterpreting earlier traditions of landscape painting—one of the most important artistic innovations of late-imperial China.

“The MFA is honored to accept this extremely generous gift from Mr. Weng,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “This masterpiece by the greatest painter of the Qing dynasty is a transformative addition to our collection. Together with other works in our collection, we are now able to see Wang Hui’s expansive talents across many formats—from monumental hand scrolls to intimate fans—allowing us to explore the full range of the artist’s remarkable abilities. It’s deeply meaningful that on Mr. Weng’s 100th birthday, he has given us such an important gift—one that the public will treasure for generations to come.”

A modern-day Renaissance man—filmmaker, poet, historian and artist—Weng has devoted himself to the preservation and study of China’s cultural heritage. Considered one of the most respected collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese painting, Weng is the current steward of his family’s collection, one that has been handed down through six generations and is among the greatest private holdings of Chinese art in the U.S. He has been a longtime supporter of the MFA, donating 20 important works to the Museum over the years.

“In celebration of my 100th birthday, I have donated 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River to the MFA,” said Weng. “This museum has the oldest Asian art department in the U.S., with a collection that includes celebrated masterpieces of Chinese painting, especially from the Song and Yuan dynasties. Wang Hui’s scroll will complement these works. I am honored that the MFA is its final home.”

For six years, Wang Hui served as the favored court artist of the Kangxi emperor. He painted 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River after leaving imperial service and the city of Beijing in 1699. Just before his departure, he completed a set of 12 handscrolls that depict the emperor’s voyage along the 1,100-mile-long Grand Canal connecting Beijing with the city of Hangzhou and linking the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. Tightly and naturalistically painted, those scrolls are full of figures and architecture in the style preferred by the imperial court. 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River, by contrast, is a far more personal painting. The artist produced relaxed and expressive brushstrokes, free from the constraints of realism and the stylistic demands of an emperor. Wang Hui spent seven months detailing the mountains, ferries, fishermen, towns, historic landmarks and temples found along the Yangzi. He had never traveled the length of the river himself. Instead, his efforts represented an imaginary voyage through Chinese cultural traditions. Known for his talent at copying earlier masters, he chose a subject rich with artistic, historic and literary references. Wang Hui’s painting harks back to previous depictions of the Yangzi, as well as to many poems and prose works composed long before. Scrolling through and spotting a landmark—such as the Red Cliff (Chi Bi) or Yellow Crane Tower—an educated viewer would have immediately recalled the words to an ancient poem memorized in childhood.

After its creation, Wang Hui’s painting struck out on its own journey; thrilled with what he felt was his finest work, the artist sent the scroll out into the world. It passed from owner to owner for 150 years before arriving at an antiques shop in Beijing in the 19th century, where it was seen by Weng Tonghe (1830–1904), a high-ranking imperial official. Although enthralled with the work, Weng Tonghe initially turned the dealer down due to the exorbitant price. Within a few months, however, after repeatedly visiting the shop to view the scroll, he decided to forgo the purchase of a new house to acquire the painting. It immediately became Weng Tonghe’s most prized possession, passed down in his family over the centuries, from father to son—most recently, to Weng, his great-great-grandson.

“The MFA has a world-class collection of early Chinese paintings, and there’s nothing we would have wanted more to strengthen our holdings than this extraordinary work from the 17th century,” said Nancy Berliner, Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art. “It has been in the hands of one family who has cherished it for almost 150 years. We are honored to be the next steward of this great work of art, so that future generations will be able to immerse themselves in Wang Hui’s masterpiece—which incorporates so many great artists and poets who came before him.”

Wang Hui was the most celebrated of the Four Wangs, a group of Chinese painters that also included Wang Shimin (1592–1680), Wang Jian (1598–1677) and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715). Wang Shimin had been a disciple of the influential Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who believed that scholar-painters should study from the old masters of landscape painting and express themselves primarily through the subtleties of brushwork. The Four Wangs followed in Dong Qichang’s principles, defining a new style, later known as the “Orthodox School” of Chinese painting, which established an appreciation of paintings for their classical references and abstract values rather than realistic details.

Recognized as a child prodigy, Wang Hui became thoroughly versed in the art and theories of Dong Qichang under the mentorship of Wang Shimin. While studying and copying ancient masterworks, Wang Hui made it his objective to achieve a “Great Synthesis” between the descriptive landscape styles of the Song dynasty and the calligraphic brushwork of the Yuan dynasty. His 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River complements Summer Mountains after Dong Yuan (Wang Jian, 1642) and Southern Hills After Spring Rain (Wang Yuanqi, late 17th-early 18th century), previously given to the MFA by Weng, enabling the Museum to articulate the depth and meaning of the Orthodox School.

“I am humbled by Mr. Weng’s generosity and inspired to think about how his gift will transform the future of Chinese art at the MFA,” said Christina Yu Yu, Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia. “We’re excited to invite the public to take advantage of the rare opportunity to see this incredible scroll up close—to appreciate every brushstroke and masterful detail as the narrative carries them upstream along the Yangzi.”

10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River (on view through September 30, 2018 in the Asian Paintings Gallery)
The scroll is the focus of an immersive installation currently on view at the Museum, presented with soundscapes and interpretive materials that invite visitors to explore the sophisticated brushwork, rich landscape imagery and literary references of the painting, as well as discover its history. Organized in honor of Weng’s 100th birthday, the exhibition also celebrates the publication of the collector’s scholarly book on 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River and the many journeys the masterpiece itself has taken.

10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River bears an inscription by Wang Hui that describes the painting’s genesis, and its custom-made wooden box, also on view in the exhibition, features a colophon by Weng Tonghe:

This Yangzi River painting may have a spirit of its own,
Acquiring it helps me forget how poor I feel.
Who would buy a painting instead of a house?
Please forgive me, friend, if I never let it out of my sight!

Colophons are traditionally written by Chinese collectors to express their appreciation or passion for a work of art. Weng composed his own colophon for 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River earlier this year. It is on view in the gallery and the MFA invites visitors to write their own, to capture their experience of viewing the special scroll.

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