After victory in 1759 at the end of a particularly brutal battle against the Mongols, the Emperor Qianlong celebrated with his generals. The whole of upper Asia was now under Manchu authority. In the wake of his latest conquest, the emperor commissioned court artists to document his victories. In his own words, “I wish the sixteen prints of the victories that I won […] to be sent to Europe where the best artists in copper shall be chosen so that they may render each of these prints perfectly in all its parts on plates of copper.”
Engraving, as a practice, fascinated the emperor. This process of printmaking had been prevalent in Europe since the 15th century. It involved the use of a needle to produce engravings with ease and precision on a coated copperplate. In 1762, the Qianlong emperor commissioned renowned Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione, along with three of his colleagues, to produce sketches of his victorious battles as draft designs for copperplate prints. Prior to his death in 1766, Castiglione left specific orders for how he wanted his battle drawings reproduced: the plates were to be treated with delicacy and required great care.
A decision was made that the sketches would be sent to Paris to be engraved. Once the decision had been made, the transactions that followed were strictly monitored. The desired completion period was short – the works had to be returned within the thirty-third year of Qianlong’s reign, in 1768 (though in fact that deadline was not met). At the Parisian court, copperplates were brought from England, paper of French manufacture was used, and engravers from across Europe were hired to translate sketch to copperplate. The Emperor was so satisfied with the engravings executed in France that he continued to document his subsequent military campaigns as copperplate engravings that were executed by Chinese artists.
This print depicts a raid in 1755 in which General Kalmuk Ayusi, having defected to the Chinese following his surrender to the Qing forces, attacks Dawaachi’s camp on Mount Gadan. Ayushi attacks with courage. He braves enemy territory and overwhelming numbers of enemy forces. Castiglione illustrates a landscape that sets a stage for conflict, while the work’s human subjects swarm around the mountain’s natural features. A sense of flow is created as men swarm around the rocky scenery. This flow leads the eye around the battlefield. This composition is present in the Nian Rebellion battle scene as well, in which the conflict unfolds in a “flowing” manner that carries the eye around the interspersed features of the landscape. The notion of flow is synonymous with continuous movement. With visual movement playing a key role in the theme of this exhibition’s exploration, the sense of fluidity established in the Nian Battle scene and in Castiglione’s work reinforces the theme further.