Sotheby's to present two highly important handscrolls from the Yuan and the Qing dynasties

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Sotheby's to present two highly important handscrolls from the Yuan and the Qing dynasties
Wang Hui (1632 – 1717), et al. The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll VI ink and colour on silk, handscroll, 2106.7 cm. For Exhibition Only. Courtesy Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- This October in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s will present two highly rare and important handscrolls formerly in the Qing Imperial Collection, as the centrepieces of its Fine Classical Chinese Paintings pre-sale exhibition. Made during the Yuan and Qing dynasties, these extremely precious and prized scrolls are marvels of ingenuity and skill, and their unveiling this autumn will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the public to view them together.

Commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor in the late seventeenth century, The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour tells the story of a journey taken by the Emperor across southern China, chronicling daily life in the towns and countryside along the way. Similar in ambition and detail to the Bayeux Tapestry, it brings China and its people of three hundred years ago to life. Ever since its completion, this famous set of scrolls have been a source of wonder for many artists, collectors and connoisseurs, amongst them David Hockney, who was inspired in 1988 to make a film about Scroll VII, broadcast by the BBC, in which he described it as ‘…a marvelous complex example of shifting viewpoints that still seem to make perfectly ordered sense’. During the final years of the Qing dynasty, The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll VI was cut into sections after leaving the imperial palace. These component parts have been reunited only recently following their dispersal, and they will now be exhibited together for the first time in over a century.

This masterpiece will be displayed alongside one of the finest works by the renowned painter of horses during the Yuan dynasty – Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback by Ren Renfa – which will lead Sotheby’s Fine Classical Chinese Paintings sale on 8 October, with an estimate of HK$80-120 million / US$10,340,000 – 15,510,000.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman, Sotheby’s Asia, International Head and Chairman, Chinese Works of Art, comments: “It is a privilege for Sotheby’s to present to the public this season two exceptional scroll paintings produced some three hundred years apart, which were passed down in the collection of the Qing dynasty emperors. Foremost, we will be unveiling for the first time reconstituted in its entirety scroll VI of The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour.”

Steven Zuo, Head of Classical Chinese Paintings, Sotheby’s Asia, commented: “We are thrilled to have led a campaign to reunite all seven sections of Scroll VI in The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, after many years of effort and dedication in the hope of bringing them together. This is a masterpiece which is prized for its historical value, and it is with pride that we celebrate its reunion. What makes this occasion even more significant as a moment of artistic and cultural importance, is the scroll’s pairing with another masterpiece, Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback by Yuan Dynasty master Ren Renfa, a painting that was once housed in the Qing imperial collection before passing though the hands of several prominent connoisseurs. Our exhibition is a golden opportunity to view these two exceptional works together.”

A Monumental Imperial Commission: Wang Hui’s The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour
Commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor during the early Qing Dynasty, The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour is a monumental work comprising twelve scrolls which took six years to complete. They were moved to the Palace of Imperial Ancestors (Shouhuangdian) which overlooked the Forbidden City and kept in the Imperial City as objects of veneration for over 200 years after Kangxi’s death, but as the final years of the Qing dynasty drew to a close, in 1901 the scrolls were dispersed abroad. Audacious in its ambition and scope, the complete set serves as an important historical document and as a reminder, and indeed nine of the scrolls are now housed in museum and university collections*. Since the whereabouts of two scrolls are unknown, Scroll VI is the only one amongst the group to remain in private hands. Having been cut up and separated, fragments gradually surfaced over the years, including two sections at auction at Sotheby’s in New York and Hong Kong. The last section of the scroll was sold for US$ 9,546,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2016. It is only now, thanks to the generosity and zeal of a determined collector, that the scroll will again be seen as intended.

Created under the leadership of celebrated landscape painter Wang Hui (1632 – 1717), The Southern Tour scrolls stand as a masterpiece of early Qing court painting, and it is the sheer magnitude and richness of the scrolls that distinguishes this set of works from other classical Chinese paintings. Depicting the Kangxi’s southern inspection tour, the twelve handscrolls measure over 200 metres in total, and capture the notable sights and cities the Emperor encompassed on his journey, including more than one thousand human figures and animals, a variety of topographical features, and a range of professions undertaken by the Emperor’s subjects.

The Emperor undertook six Southern Tours during his reign and the creation of the set of twelve scrolls by Kangxi’s court was based on the second tour of 1689. According to the Emperor himself, the purpose of these tours was to inspect the flood controls of the Yellow River and the Grand Canal, and to understand the local customs of the various regions. In effect, the tours contributed to the political stability and economic development of the Qing Dynasty, and the scrolls played their part by providing a comprehensive picture of the social, economic, and cultural conditions of the time, through the topography, scenery, and local customs depicted, while reinforcing the political legitimacy of the Kangxi emperor. Self-contained but interconnected as a whole, and visually narrating the Emperor’s journey in a horizontal format, the scrolls are organised around the Emperor’s daily itinerary. Kangxi makes a single appearance in each, on a slightly larger scale than the other figures, a compositional device that immediately indicates his superior status.

A Renowned Painter of Horses from the Yuan Dynasty: Ren Renfa’s Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback
Leading the Fine Classical Chinese Paintings sale is Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback by Ren Renfa, a renowned painter of horses and a high-ranking official in the Yuan Dynasty. Measuring two metres across, the scroll depicts five drunken princes – one of whom later became the Tang dynasty emperor Xuan Zong (685-762) – taking a joyous horse ride accompanied by four attendants. Dynamic in composition, it vividly portrays the strong sibling bond between the princes.

With much of Ren Renfa’s output either held in museums or owned by private collectors, this widely published scroll is one of the rare surviving works by the painter to come to the market. Boasting impeccable provenance, it was kept in the imperial collection of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and catalogued in ‘Shiqu Baoji Xubian’, the second volume of the prestigious inventory of the Qing emperors’ collection of paintings and calligraphy. Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the painting was transported out of the Forbidden City in 1922 by Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, and taken to the United States, where it was acquired by Walter Hochstadter, a well-known and distinguished dealer in Chinese art.

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