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Peonies and China

Peonyblog2Today one of the Freer/Sackler Archives volunteers brought some beautiful peonies from her garden to add colors and elegance to the newly renovated FSG library reading room.

Chinese people have a love affair with peonies which symbolize wealth, honor, peace, royalty, masculinity and feminine beauty.

The large, showy and variegated blossoms are favorite themes in Chinese art, poetry and drama. Famous artists through the various dynasties have produced paintings of the peony utilizing this symbolism. The early history of this flower is closely associated with royalty, for records show that it was grown in the gardens of the Sui and Tang emperors’ gardens. Because of this association, it became known as “flower of wealth and rank”.

_MG_7273_MG_7274The images at left might appear odd to the westerners’ eyes: a powerful emperor sits with peonies around him. But in the Chinese eyes, it is a perfect harmony of powers: son of the heaven and king of the flowers. Who could be more powerful than these two joint forces?!

This FSG Archives’ photo shows the details of Empress Dowager Cixi’s dress when she wore it to receive the foreign envoys’ wives, Summer Palace, Beijing in the early 1900s.

_MG_7268The image above lends an idea what Cixi’s embroidery might look like in color.

F1952.16a-b (1)
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Purchase, F1952.16a-b, Bowl with Foliate Rim, 1426-1435.

_MG_7281 _MG_7279

This painting (above) was done by Badashanren who was known “to leave the center of most paintings void, with the elements of the imagery dangling from the picture frame or often outside the frame . . . Fragmentary images give many of Bada’s paintings an incomplete look, evoking a sentiment that the world is imperfect in the eyes of this former prince who was living clandestinely under a foreign regime”. – Joseph Chang, curator of Chinese paintings, Freer Gallery of Art.

F1909.245r (1)
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1909.245r, Cat, Rock and Peonies, early 20th century.

There are many books in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Museum Library collection featuring peonies and if you are interested, here are some highlights on this subject matter:

Bartholonew, Terese Tse, 1988. Myths and rebuses in Chinese art: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from July 20, 1988. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum.

Chang, Joseph and Qianshen Bai, 2003. In pursuit of heavenly harmony: paintings and calligraphy by Bada Shanren from the estate of Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai. Washington, DC.: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Fang, Jing Pei, 2004. Symbols and rebuses in Chinese art: figures, bugs, beasts, and flowers. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

National Palace Museum, 1995. Ming bao shang zhen: gu li gu gong bow u yuan ming pin xuan ji. Taipei: National Palace Museum.  

National Palace Museum, 1987. Special Exhibition of peony paintings. Taipei: national Palace Museum.

—Yue Shu

One Comment

  1. Those are beautiful red and white peony flowers in the vase. Bridgewater Gardens located in Saline, MI sells beautiful peony flowers in June each year.

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