The Hunts at Mulan
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period
Ink and colours on silk, with fourteen imperial seals and five signatures
(Lang Shining, Jin Kun, Ding Guanpeng, Cheng Zhidao and
Li Huilin). Cover in silk kesi tapestry with jade clasp.
Four scrolls: H : 43 cm x L : 1547 cm.
Inv. EO 3568 (1-2-3-4) ; Frey Bequest to the Musée du Louvre in 1931,
transferred to the Musée Guimet in 1945
Paris, National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet
This work is composed of four scrolls representing more than 60 metres of painting. Entitled Mulan tu, it was executed by eight painters under the direction of Castiglione, Jin Kun and Ding Guanpeng. The vast composition unfolds in a continuous frieze whose rhythmical flow is ensured by the landscape. All of the figures seem to walk without stopping, moving in an uninterrupted procession.
The first scroll depicts the journey, with uniformed civil servants, military personnel and a multitude of bearers. The emperor, surrounded by his personal guard, eventually appears on horseback, while the people bow to salute him.
The second scroll shows the imperial encampment. In front of a palace of canvas, the emperor is shown watching an entertainment featuring Mongol combat.
In the third scroll, spirited riders attempt to subdue wild horses. The ruler, attentive, follows the progress of these events.
In the fourth scroll he becomes the principal actor as the entire company sets off to hunt a large deer which the emperor, astride his mount, shoots. He seems to have enjoyed these activities, which he practised regularly until an advanced age in the hunting reserve at Mulan, north of his summer residence Bishushanzhuang. From September or October he went hunting for about three weeks in the company of more than 10,000 men.
These were not simple recreational activities but rather veritable military displays where he could test the valour of his officers. Furthermore, all of these nobles, proud and honoured to be associated with this great assembly, contributed to the reinforcement of Manchu legitimacy. The action took place in this northern countryside in contact with the population of the steppes.
Of the five signatories, Castiglione is mentioned first, due to the fact that he had painted a portrait of the Qianlong emperor himself. The ruler is represented as a figure of noble bearing, with a thin face, alert eyes and a piercing look. Jin Kun was undoubtedly director of the project. In fact he was the artist having the longest professional experience within the palace. The responsibility for executing the human figures lay with Ding Guanpeng, while Cheng Zhidao, aided by Li Huilin, drew the landscape in ink, highlighted by bright colours.
This rhythmical and contrasting decor is particularly effective for conveying detail. The narrative element prevails over the official pomp which is here much enhanced by the sort of naïve and playful freshness which was characteristic of the art of the court around 1750. The four scrolls were originally housed in the Bishushanzhuang residence at Jehol as is attested by a seal. At some unknown date they evidently arrived at the Ningshou Palace in Beijing, where they joined the works The Qazak Offering Tribute Horses and The Qzungar Offering a Horse in Tribute.