No. 122
Qazak offering horses

China
Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Era 1757
Painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining 1688 - 1766) Paper, ink, lightly coloured, four-character title, calligraphed by Qianlong
     and placed in the frontispiece. At the end of the painting and
     above Lang Shining's signature, a poem of the Emperor
     written on sixteen columns by Dong Gao in 1759. Twenty
     one imperial seals and numerous commentaries, including
     one signed by twelve civil and military dignitaries.
H: 49 cm, L: 267 cm
Paris, National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet
(MG 17033, Frey Donation, 1925)

Like the 1748 Dzungar horse (cat n° 121), the three Qazak messengers and four Afghan steeds of 1763 formed part of tributes offered by the peoples of the West as a token of allegiance to the Manchu regime.

There, however, all similarity ends as the subjects are treated in an utterly different vein, the three messengers representing a half-way stage between the elegant simplicity of the 1748 tribute and the majestic 1763 composition.

At first sight, the charm of the Qazak messengers resides in the poetically pastoral setting with its harmonious blend of architecture, rocks, flora and fauna. The work bathes in a clear, almost unreal, light. In such an idyllic setting, at a time of the year when the "warni hat" is to be worn and the maple leaves are barely beginning to turn colour, Emperor Qianlong, serene, surrounded by a few courtiers, receives a tribute of three horses accompanied by their Qazak grooms.

The sovereign is placed on a podium in front of a screen and is seated on a folding chair. Around him, seven columns suggest the entrance to a gallery. In front, beyond the sloping ramp forming a "dragon's causeway", stretches a vast space divided into two triangles by a kind of rising diagonal. The procession takes place along this horizon.

The handling of the landscape, rocks, trees and mosses is indisputably Chinese, based on incisive ink strokes heightened by colouring, and is usually attributed to Jin Tingbiao. It would seem, however, that the overall conception of the work belongs to the Milanese friar. Indeed, the setting owes more to European painting than to Oriental traditions.

The scroll does not lend itself easily to a rhythmic appraisal in successive sequences but is more attuned to an integral development highlighting its fine composition which culminates in optical illusion.

Here we have the disciple of Andrea Pozzo who, along with Nian Xiyao in 1729, published the Shixue, a transation of the Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum, and who, in 1738, gave concrete expression to such Baroque theories in Suichao tu (New Year Wishes), a painting on silk now a days in the Peking Palace.

As to the ten figures and the three Qazak horses, they reveal the artist's sheer technical virtuosity. The bareness of the landscape accentuates the vigorous appearance of the horses.

Elegant, noble, solemn, each of their tethers loosely clasped by their respective grooms, they present a picture of fully-tamed strength. The handling of these silent sculptures is so accomplished that the gradation of strokes is undetectable. The figures are transcribed with fresh, bright tones, their bodies are light. The faces are rendered by means of small contrasting brushstrokes which create a prismatic light effect.

This a familiar Western technique, but used in such specific conditions - on long, wavy-fibred paper studded with mica particles -it takes on a particular vividness. Using such a restrained palette, Castiglione succeeds in penetrating the secrets of the Manchu court where ruse, submission and domination are expressed with tender humanity. A privileged observer and a man of synoptic mind, the Jesuit friar was able to win over his imperial client by portraying him in a kind of golden age of which this Guimet Museum scroll is one the most priceless illustrations.

Jean-Paul Desroches