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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Patterns of Patronage in Qing Beijing: Decentering Chinese Art History in the Long Eighteenth Century
4: Toward an Artist-Centered Model of Patronage: the Case of Yu Zhiding
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, United States
The early Qing painter Yu Zhiding 禹之鼎 (1646–ca. 1716) suffers from a woe common to portraitists: his subjectivity is often obscured by that of his sitters. Yu’s status as a literate but non-literary figure in the elite circles of Kangxi’s Beijing compound this problem, for we have nothing of Yu’s own voice to incorporate into an understanding of the artist’s motivations. Nevertheless, a study of Yu’s projects during the 1680s, ‘90s and 1700s reveals much about the artist’s journey and his role in seeking and sustaining patronage. Far from a passive participant in a process beyond his control, Yu was a savvy operator who managed relationships with the most powerful people in the realm, securing his place in the capital’s firmament by creating novel types of art suited to the uniquely self-promotional moment of the Kangxi period. Further, like many of his literati patrons, Yu worked through semi-official channels throughout his time in Beijing to win the attention of the emperor, whose unusual engagement with culture afforded opportunities outside the examination system for ambitious men. In the process, Yu moved seamlessly through a range of spaces afforded to few—the palace, the homes of powerful bannermen, villas of the Southern City, and more. By recentering Yu in his own story, this study attempts to excavate the artist’s own strategies and ambitions from beneath those of his patrons to reframe the understanding of patronage as a process controlled as much by artists as by those who commission art.