The Passion of Giuseppe Castiglione6 min read

How an 18th century Jesuit painter revolutionized Chinese art – Matthew Ehret-Kump

Castiglione (Wikicommons)

Hardly anyone in the West knows of the name Giuseppe Castiglione. Even fewer know of the name Lang Shining (郎世寧). Yet if you were to ask a Chinese citizen with an elementary knowledge of painting, both of these names would invoke the greatest affinity and respect. For Giuseppe Castiglione and Lang Shining are the same individual, who fomented an artistic revolution by combining the best artistic traditions of European and Chinese culture.

Born in 1688 in Milan, Castiglione mastered the greatest artistic techniques of the Italian Renaissance. After his career as a muralist had only begun, the talented young artist, who had recently joined the Jesuit order, was tasked with an incredible challenge: he was invited to China. The Qing dynasty Kangxi Emperor had recently requested that Jesuit experts in astronomy, painting, cartography and mechanics be sent to his court in the Forbidden City, where the Jesuits had attained a well-earned reputation, since the days of Matteo Ricci, of bringing the most advanced Western knowledge and skills in science, mechanics and the arts in addition to their missionary work.

The Jesuit approach in China was a breath of fresh air. Christian missions around the world at that time tended to try and “save” their targeted “savages” – often with force and nearly always with condescension. China, an advanced civilization that had existed for thousands of years, was not willing to believe blindly in a foreign religious doctrine, especially one promoted by a culture beset by constant warfare. The Jesuit leader Matteo Ricci, however, who came to China in 1582, never attempted to convert the Chinese from a religious book. Ricci’s policy, continued by the generations of Jesuit missionaries to follow him, was instead to create trust by engaging with Chinese culture and offering his services to the court.

Castiglione accepted the challenge with vigor, learning Chinese, adopting the name Lang Shining, and leveraging his artistic talents. He arrived in Beijing in 1715, and after careful study began painting works that combined the European techniques of chiaroscuro, linear perspective and Renaissance realism with Chinese aesthetics, poetic symbolism and pigments. In so doing, he achieved what every other Jesuit missionary artist had failed to do since the days of Matteo Ricci. Chinese aesthetic tastes were considered too different from those of the West, and while the Chinese enthusiastically embraced Western science and mechanics, the arts had never resonated with them.

Castiglione’s new school of painting was called the Xianfa style (“line method”) and quickly became the favored style of Emperor Kangxi, continuing to gain momentum under Kangxi’s son Yongzheng. During the reign of Yongzheng, Castiglione’s most famous paintings, ‘Gathering of Auspicious Signs’ (1723) and the 7.7 meter long scroll ‘One Hundred Horses in a Landscape’ (1728), further increased his fame. As art author Marco Musillo has pointed out, the latter scroll was a unique breakthrough in Chinese painting, incorporating three separate vanishing points along its horizon line which allowed for three separate compositional harmonies to coexist while not breaking the unity of the whole. The use of chiaroscuro (light and shadow) further caused the horses to stand out dramatically from all other renditions of animals produced by China’s artists up until that point 1

His success peaked with Kangxi’s grandson, Qianlong, who was said to have loved him like a member of his own family. The Qianlong Emperor protected and championed Castiglione during a time when it was becoming increasingly dangerous to be a Christian in China, due to the disruptive rites controversy. Under Qianlong, in 1736 Castiglione was elevated to be the official court painter, then in 1748 to administrator of the imperial parks and vice-president of the six boards, the highest rank ever attained by a Jesuit. It was clear that the Emperor recognized the power of this higher mode of artistic expression.

With the aim of keeping the fragmented and multi-ethnic Chinese empire unified, Qianlong commissioned Castiglione to represent his image to different constituents, which Columbia University’s Asia for Educators described in the following way:2

To the Tibetans, Qianlong portrayed himself as a re-incarnation of one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism, Manjusri; for the Mongols, he took on the role of a Steppe prince who understood their steppe traditions; and to the Han Chinese he portrayed himself as a scholar and a great patron of Chinese learning and art.

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The Qianlong Emperor, portrayed as Manchu warrior (left), Han royalty (middle) and Buddhist reincarnation (right) (Wikicommons)

Castiglione died in Beijing in 1766, 50 years after arriving. He not only revolutionized Chinese painting but also copperplate engravings, architecture, and even enameling, crafting new techniques and blending styles between Eastern and Western aesthetics. In 1729 he co-published the first treatise on artistic perspective in China, called The Science of Vision (Shixue), and he designed many murals in the Forbidden City for the Qianlong Emperor, using the trompe l’oeil effect (also called quaduratura) which was popularized in European cathedrals and theaters.

His architectural work, meanwhile, was beautifully showcased in the Western style pavilions of the Old Summer Palace, which Qianlong commissioned in 1747. Sadly, only ruins remain, after Anglo-French forces destroyed the palace grounds during the second Opium War of 1860. This, and other atrocities committed during the Opium Wars and beyond, did nothing for China’s affinity for the West. A century later, the closing of China in the Mao era and its denouncement of imperialist influence further resulted in Castiglione’s name falling into the dustbin of history.

Drawing of formal European gardens in the Xiyang Lou (西洋樓, Western mansions) section (Wikicommons)

Today, Castiglione’s paintings mostly survive in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum (most of whose exhibits were removed by General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces in 1949, when they retreated from Beijing and fled to Taiwan). Under Deng Xioping’s leadership in the 80s, West-East cultural cross-pollination restarted, and Castiglione’s contribution was slowly recognized once more. Now, perhaps guided by a new Silk Road spirit, interest in Castiglione and other great Renaissance visionaries is finally revived in China, the land which he called home for most of his life. ∎

Header image: A segment from Castiglione’s ‘One Hundred Horses in a Landscape’ (Wikimedia Commons)
  1. Marco Musillo, The Shining Inheritance: Italian Painters at the Qing Court 1699-1812, Getty Publications 2016, p.89
  2. Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Maxwell K. Hearn and Madeleine Zelin