Captive Beauties: Depictions of Women in Late Imperial China

October 25, 2022 - January 15, 2022

Women from imperial China were often depicted in terms of their highly circumscribed lives, which were entirely dependent upon men. In some paintings, women engage in duties according to their socio-economic status based on patriarchal Confucian principles. Other paintings show women with elaborate coiffures and silk dresses, serving as musicians or courtesans. Literary and visual artists often compared women’s physical attributes to flowers, depicting them as refined, delicate, and otherworldly.

Other artists hinted at suppressed urges and emotions, which reflected a growing interest in the inner lives of their female subjects. These paintings demonstrate this interest in the following verses, sung by the female protagonist in the play, The Peony Pavilion, 1598. Confined to the inner quarters of her home, she laments a brilliantly flowering spring scene in her isolated garden:

The flowers in purple and red,

Scattering here and there,

Yet only accompanied by

Dry wells and ruined fence.

Kang Tao, 18th century China, Qing dynasty (1644–1912) The Singer Su Xiaoxiao, 1746 Ink and light color on paper Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2006.44.3
Wang Qiao, active 1657–80 China, Qing dynasty (1644–1912) Lady at Dressing Table, 1657 Ink and color on silk Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2002.4.5 Fei Danxu, 1801–1850 China, Qing dynasty (1644–1912) Encountering, 1839 Ink and color on silk The Suzanne S. Roberts Endowment for Asian Art 2014.102 Xu Zhuang, active late 17th century China, Qing dynasty (1644–1912) Court Ladies at Play, 1683 Ink and color on silk Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton 2012.35