‹ Past Exhibitions

Nature Observed and Imagined: Five Hundred Years of Chinese Painting

Nature is generally understood as the visible, tangible, audible, and non-manmade world on Earth, whereas phenomena beyond the earth’s atmosphere belong to space and the Universe, and are not within the scope of Nature. In Chinese culture, however, Nature and the Universe are often perceived as the same entity, wherein Nature and humankind are not dualistic opposites, but Nature is the extension of human beings. Daoist writings imagined natural or cosmic phenomena as the echo of human internal organs, while Confucian philosophy considered Nature as simultaneously serving as a warning to, or approval of, human behavior. For example, the Chinese imperial system was perceived as a heavenly mandate, which deepened the importance of omens from Nature. Since long ago, Chinese people have also relied on observing constellations and natural phenomena as the mirror of their fortune. The concept that mankind, Nature, and the Universe are manifestations of the same entity has deeply influenced Chinese art and culture.

This exhibition explores the ways that Chinese artists have viewed and depicted Nature, and how they deployed painting and calligraphy to imagine a world in which humans live in harmony with each other and with the Universe. Ranging in date from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries, these works of art present themes of Chinese views of Nature and the cosmic order, literati attitudes toward Nature and artistic expression, the human qualities revealed and reflected in Nature, and artists’ observations and imaginings of the natural world.

Featured here are important Chinese paintings from the distinguished collections of two families of Cornell alumni, Martin Tang, Class of 1970, and Bobby Tsai, Class of 1983, along with other loans from Cornell alumni, and selected works from the Johnson Museum’s permanent collection of Chinese art, all of which were acquired through the generosity of Cornell alumni and faculty. So this exhibition also serves as a celebration of the University’s longstanding connections with China, the prominence and contributions of Cornell alumni and faculty, and the University’s ongoing commitment to promoting knowledge of Chinese culture, history, and art through academic programs and public outreach. We are grateful for the loyalty and generosity of all the lenders and donors who made this exhibition possible.

An-yi Pan
Associate Professor of the History of Art

Ellen Avril
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art