One Hundred Horses

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang
Among the top 10 masterpieces of traditional Chinese painting, One Hundred Horses was painted not by a Chinese artist, but by an Italian called Giuseppe Castiglione.
Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang

Among the top 10 masterpieces of traditional Chinese painting, there’s a long mong the top 10 masterpieces of traditional Chinese painting, there’s a long handscrollBaijunTuCastiglione called or One Hundred Horses, which was painted not by a Chinese artist, but by an Italian called Giuseppe (1688–1766).

Known by his Chinese name Lang Shining in China, Castiglione served in the Chinese imperial court as a court painter for as long as 50 years.

Born in Milan, Castiglione became a Jesuit lay brother and was sent to Beijing, the capital of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1715 as a missionary. But instead of preaching, the young missionary was employed by the imperial court as an artisan.

This is partly because the Chinese imperial court loathed missionaries spreading foreign and especially Western religions in the country, but also because the young Castiglione had worked in Italy and Portugal as a muralist, skills the court thought could be useful.

Castiglione served three Chinese emperors, namely, Emperor Kangxi, Emperor Yongzheng and Emperor Qianlong, during the most prosperous years of the Qing Dynasty.

When Emperor Kangxi first summoned the young Italian, he told Castiglione that Western religions went against Chinese thinking and ideology. However, the court knew that some Western missionaries had useful scientific knowledge. Some of them would be employed at the imperial court.

In 1723, after the ascension of Emperor Yongzheng, Castiglione became better established in the imperial court as an outstanding artist known for his unique painting style that combined Western and Chinese techniques, hence introducing a new aesthetic.

Soon he was commissioned to paint One Hundred Horses, an almost eight-meter-long silk handscroll.

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One Hundred Horses

The shadows and texturing of trees and horses in Castiglione’s One Hundred Horses help give the painting a three-dimensional effect from a consistent light source.

One Hundred Horses

Compared with One Hundred Horses, Two Horses painted by Tang Dynasty artist Ren Renfa features calligraphic line drawing, the most common style for traditional Chinese ink wash paintings.

Painting on silk is difficult as it does not allow for correction or overpainting. To make sure that the handscroll would come out as desired, Castiglione first worked out every detail in a preparatory drawing on paper before he meticulously copied the design onto the silk.

It took Castiglione a total of five years to complete the painting. There’s no record on how Emperor Yongzheng viewed the painting, but according to historical data, the following emperor, Qianlong, was awed by it.

Emperor Qinglong declared the painting a masterpiece and soon afterwards, Castiglione was named the principal painter of the Qing court. He was also asked to join the effort of designing Western mansions in the Old Summer Palace, once known as the “Garden of All Gardens.”

Unfortunately, the palace was destroyed during the invasion of the British and French expeditionary forces in 1860.

As the name suggests, One Hundred Horses portrays about 100 horses in a variety of postures and activities — standing, walking, running, frolicking, drinking, bathing, rolling, fighting and grooming.

At a first glance, one will very likely be impressed by the painting’s monumental scale and distinctive Western feeling, reminding one that it was executed by a European trained as a muralist.

Then, looking at details, one would probably be surprised by the ingenious integration of vivid Western realism with some traditional Chinese brushwork.

However, the landscape here is definitely depicted in the conventional Western single focus perspective instead of the shifting focus perspective widely used in traditional Chinese landscapes. Also, in depicting vegetation, horses and figures, instead of the traditional Chinese calligraphic conventions, the painter resorted more to Western techniques such as arabesques, cross-hatching and modeling by light and shadow.

So, Castiglione’s drawing lines in the painting seemed a bit stiff and labored in comparison with the spontaneous and lively calligraphic lines that are commonly found in traditional Chinese ink wash paintings.

In addition, the shadows and texturing of trees and horses in the painting not only give them a three-dimensional effect, but also reveal the Western manner of using a consistent light source rather than diverse light sources in traditional Chinese painting.

After pointing out all the European touches in the painting, it remains an undisputable masterpiece of Chinese painting, probably not only because it was painted in China by an imperial court painter, but also because it was executed with a Chinese brush.

Today, Castiglione’s One Hundred Horses, a 94.5 x 776.2cm ink and color on silk handscroll, is in the collection of National Palace Museum in Taipei.

The draft version, a 94 x 789.3cm ink on paper drawing is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

百骏图 (Bǎijùn Tú) 

Artist: Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766)

Year: Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 94.5cm x 776.2cm

Location: National Palace Museum in Taipei

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