The Forbidden City Comes To Richmond

East meets West in grand style in Richmond for the next few months. Our Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is hosting the Forbidden City exhibit and it’s a jaw-dropper.

I was invited to a private tour of the exhibit yesterday (how about that?) and I could have stayed all day if left to my own devices. One fabulous object after another was on display, but one in particular caught my eye.

We’re not allowed to take photographs in the exhibit (dash it!) but here’s something very close to what captured my imagination:


An enormous scroll of a life-sized horse dominated a gallery space, and I was immediately drawn to it. There was something about it that seemed….well, different from the artwork one typically sees on Chinese scrolls. And for good reason, it turns out.

Imagine my surprise to see that it was painted by a young Jesuit missionary in the early 1700s named Giuseppe Castiglione. He is credited with transforming the paintings of the imperial court of Emperor Qianlong with a strong Western influence.


The influence of European equestrian portraits is clear. It was Castiglione’s paintings of horses which earned him imperial favor.

I am completely enthralled with this story. It turns out that the Chinese were too. In 2005 a 24-part miniseries was produced in China called “Palace Artist” and Castiglione was played by Chinese-Canadian actor Dashan. Wouldn’t this make a fascinating story for Western television, too?


The Empress Xiao Xian gets her due.

I thought you might enjoy seeing a few of Castiglione’s paintings. All reside either in Beijing or at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. The western influence is clear, isn’t it?



Castiglione arrived to the Forbidden City in 1715 at age 27 in answer to a summons from Jesuit missionaries already in China for a court painter. He was given the Chinese name Lang Shi’ning.



He spent the rest of his life at the Imperial Court dying in 1766 at age 77. The romantic in me can’t help but wonder how his days were spent. Did he marry? Have children?



Here is the Emperor himself. He did not approve of chiaroscuro declaring that shadows made the painting appear dirty. Castiglione made the adjustments necessary in his painting technique to keep the Emperor happy. Transformations take time, evidently.


OK, all you fabulously talented authors out there. Isn’t this just the coolest premise for a novel? Imagine the best-seller possibilities! Court intrique, Chinese culture clashes, maybe even a love story. He wasn’t a priest, after all, just a Jesuit lay-brother…..


Just no “50 Shades” of anything because we know the Emperor did not approve of chiaroscuro. I tend to agree.


Xie Xie,





About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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63 Responses to The Forbidden City Comes To Richmond

  1. carolwallace says:

    Lovely! Thanks for digging up and sharing these images! A somewhat similar (i.e. Westerner in Asia long ago) tale is told in David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” Major differences of course but the crucial sense of dislocation is vividly explored.


    • I did not realize that “Thousand Autumns” had a similar theme….haven’t read anything more recent of his than “Cloud Atlas.” And so you add another book to my pile….

      And I can’t help wondering what in Castiglione’s story could have taken up 24-episodes of television time?


  2. Sandra says:

    Beautiful paintings, exquisite details and lovely animals. The colours are vivid and yet delicate. Thank you for sharing this, Barbara.


  3. good morning!! This is definitely something I am going to have to explore!! With a daughter that went to Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, who as you know took Mandarin since 1st grade and minored in it in college–this is just awesome. And not to mention that I love antique prints & painting–what a happy accident!! You are always finding something interesting and then presenting it with even more levels of facts all with your unique (and I think great) point of view!!


    • Good Morning, Cindy! I am so glad you find this interesting. It completely fascinates me on so many levels. Even in this modern age when you step off the plane into China, it is a shock to the senses. I would love to know more about this man….how long did it take to get to China in 1715….how did he like the food…did he ever want to go home….so many questions. I am thrilled you enjoyed this!!


  4. nrhatch says:

    So glad you enjoyed your sneak preview of the exhibit! Sounds like a novel you should get started on right away . . . it is NaNoWriMo after all! 😛


    • You know I am far too lazy, Nancy, for undertaking anything like this. Not to mention “talent-free” when it comes to fiction-writing. I am trying to send out hints, however, to certain people who could do this story justice!


      • nrhatch says:

        Haha. You and me both, Barb. There are plenty of books out there for me to read and enjoy, I’m not interested in (a) pulling my hair out to write one or (b) beating my head against the cyber wall to market it.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Diane Ahlberg says:

    Our museum has had some wonderful exhibits- this one is so vibrant and filled with detail
    History never ceases to amaze me!
    Thanks for sharing-


  6. Franny Powell says:

    I was supposed to go to the exhibit but really can’t with my broken foot, so you have now given me a fabulous tour!!!! Thanks Barb!!!!


  7. Not just the art, superb as it is, but also the background…many thanks!


  8. A great journey to a good place to be in. Lovely works of art. You made my morning. Thank you Silver in the Barn.


  9. Outlier Babe says:

    No, thank YOU.

    Something vaguely niggles at the pores that pass for a memory…I seem to recall reading once of a European’s reaction to China–it may even have been Polo’s, and the time Kublai Khan’s–and, at the time, I compared his reaction to the reaction of Cortez to Tenochtitlan: The European was struck by how CLEAN everything was–by how you could not smell the foulness of the city from afar–and by the beauty.

    Memory is misleading, and perhaps this is a construct comprised of a mishmosh from various sources, fiction and non-, added to my own imaginings. It is, certainly, what I imagine that Jesuit student’s experience would have been.

    Fascinating post.


    • Whether your memory is a misleading mishmosh or not, I share these same impressions. Mine is reinforced by “Shogun”, remember that James Clavell novel from back in the 70s, I think? The Japanese were horrified at Blackthorne’s stench and appalled at the infrequency of his bathing. I think you’re onto something valid here.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, How lucky you were to get a special showing of the Forbidden City treasures. When you come to Taiwan, you will have to reserve some time for the Palace Museum here, even if you have been several times before, as they frequently change the paintings. Taipei has a large number of Castiglione paintings, and they are frequently exhibited. Particularly noteworthy are his many nature studies of flowers and birds. I know what you mean about the special quality of Castiglione that draws you in–the detail, the color, the crispness. Since a certain Western sensibility is present, Castiglione can also be a great conduit to some of the earlier classical artists, such as those of the Song or Yuan dynasties.

    About the mini-series, I think that 24 parts is probably the legal minimum for an Asian costume drama. Don’t forget that as a rule about half of the time is devoted to scenes of people crying, at least if it is anything like what I sometimes catch on my friends’ televisions.


  11. HI Jim! I know exactly what you mean. I remember watching TV in Taipei while still clinging to the desperate hope I would be able to grasp some Mandarin and just marveling at the histrionics of the Chinese telenovelas.

    I have only been to the Palace Museum once (isn’t that a travesty?) and must go again next time. So much to see and now, of course, the Castigliones are an irresistible draw.


  12. M-R says:

    Wonderful post, Barbara ! (What did you have to do to get that invite ? – hope there were no casting couches involved … [grin] Well, you were the one to open the topic !)
    Whilst nothing in this world could get me to give the nod to the Jesuits and their nefarious missionary activities, for all I know this young bloke was indeed harmless … it’s just that I have a nasty mind when it comes to the clergy …


    • Aha! I see we are feeling our oats this morning, dear M-R! LOL! A lovely lady won the tour in a silent auction and evidently doesn’t know me well enough to exclude me from the invitation. I did behave my best and tried not to linger in the gallery after closing….although I wanted to.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. joannesisco says:

    This is where I have to admit that I’m not a museum or art gallery person. I simply don’t have the attention span … nor the knowledge of art. I’m afraid it would be quite lost on me. I’d probably spend all my time watching people looking at the art. Wait … the last time I did go to an art exhibit, that’s exactly what I did.
    I know … totally uncultured 😉


  14. dorannrule says:

    Oh you are so right Barbara! The way you tell it and illustrate it, this is a fabulous story in a blog post! I love the artist’s westernized approach -particularly the horses – and that dog is priceless. What a wonderful exhibit and how lucky you were to go on a private tour!


  15. Eliza Waters says:

    Fascinating story of western influence in a culture that I imagine wasn’t interested in diversity. Beautiful artwork you shared, the exhibit sounds like a good one. I’ve read stories about the Emperor’s wives, and not a fun job, that! Every afternoon they had to spend hours being dressed, crippled feet in tiny shoes and makeup put on, just IN CASE he chose to be with them that night. If not, all off in reverse. Some life, huh?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pat S. says:

    Loved this as it was the surprising fact about the court artists for you to discover that I had mentioned after seeing the preview. So glad you were more motivated than I was to delve into the history of it all. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. PAT!!!! Oh yes! I do remember you telling me that there was something I needed to discover, but I didn’t put two and two together until I just read this. Isn’t the story just fascinating? I want to know MORE MORE MORE! Who should we cast in our imaginary 24-episode miniseries as Castiglione?


  18. Jodi says:

    Hi Barbara – latecomer to the conversation today, and what can I say that others haven’t? I have as much fun reading your conversations with your blogging friends in your comments as I do your posts :). What a fun and eclectic group and banter. Such interesting art and history. Can’t say I knew/know much about it, but learned from your blog, expanded my mind, and appreciate yours! I was going to ask how you got the tickets, but that was already covered. Oh – and by the way – love your beautiful new gravatar picture! Your beautiful soul and spirit shines through in your beautiful eyes and smile. Hope you had a good day, my friend. Hugs


    • Latecomer, you are, Jodi! What have you been doing today…..behaving like a gainfully employed person? It’s so annoying when real life intrudes into our fun and games in the blogosphere, isn’t it? Well, in any event, I’m happy you’re here, late or not. And yes, I am always eager to see who will add what to the conversation! Fabulous bunch that you all are. Thank you for the comment on my “new” picture which was taken this summer up in Maine. Happy you approve!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Behind the Story says:

    It sounds like a wonderful exhibit. My daughter, who lives in Rockville, MD., would enjoy it. I’ll have to tell her to drive down to Richmond.

    Thank you so much for gathering these paintings of Castiglione. The one of Empress Xiao Xian is gorgeous. It looks very Chinese and at the same time very European. It would be fun to imagine what Castiglione’s life would have been like … a stranger in a strange land.


    • And wouldn’t it make a marvelous novel? I agree about Empress Xiao Xian. The gown/robe is unbelievably ornate even by Chinese standards. I hope your daughter does make it to the show; it’s worth the drive.


  20. ritaroberts says:

    Fantastic post Barbara, Just up my street as you might guess. Wonderful photo’s I am re-blogging because its so good. Thank you for sharing.


  21. KerryCan says:

    SO interesting! It kills me that my step-daughter and family just moved AWAY from Richmond so I have no really good excuse to go there and see the exhibit. I wonder if it will travel elsewhere. My favorite part of the post was the “no 50 shades of anything” comment. The world needs more art humor 😉


  22. Exquisite, Barbara. I got their e-mail newsletter but it is a long trek and requires an overnight for me…I love the way you did your research and told the story of the Jesuit artist in China. Those were lavish times (at least for those in power).


  23. Lucky you Barbara! It looks like a fabulous exhibit! Wish I lived closer…


  24. Sheryl says:

    I enjoyed the pictures and your descriptions of them. I found the ones with the Western influence particularly intriguing. There’s something a bit jarring in the way East meets West in the picture of the man on the horse.


  25. The East also has influenced Western artists such as Monet. Both styles are very appealing. I do admire Castiglione’s artistry. Thank you, Barbara, for the excellent back story on these paintings. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  26. reocochran says:

    I must have run out of time to comment, but I did say something in my mind… or started to type it and lights out in the library, Barb! Anyway, I have developed a habit to retrace my steps over the weekend, comment a bit more, etc. I would be interested in this exhibit, you Lucky Duck! I am so glad you shared this interest in this Jesuit missionary artist G. C.) who was able to incorporate some of the Western interests and techniques into the Chinese artistry. It is sad, as you mentioned, his life starting in this foreign land at age 27 and never leaving, dying 50 years of service there.
    The ability to do such beautiful works, with the delicate brush and ink strokes has always been of interest to me, Barb.


  27. ChristineR says:

    I love the seemingly simplicity of the Chinese artwork. As to writing Castiglione’s story, imagine the research!


  28. daveb42 says:

    I’ve read about that exhibit, and I’ve been to the Forbidden City, so I wish I could see the exhibit. An excellent post. Thank you.


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