Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Celebrates Landmark Donation by Wan-go H.C. Weng with Series of Exhibitions

First Installation Explores Theme of Family and Friends, Featuring Greatest Masters of Ming and Qing Dynasties

BOSTON (October 12, 2019)—This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), opens the first in a series of three exhibitions celebrating the largest and most significant gift of Chinese paintings and calligraphy in its history: the Weng Family Collection, comprising 183 objects that were acquired by and passed down through six generations of a single family. Featuring 19 works from the gift and a selection of decorative objects, Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting: Family and Friends explores the themes of family and friends, demonstrating the intimate association in Chinese art between works of art and human relations. The exhibition assembles works by some of the greatest masters from the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, such as Wang Hui and Chen Hongshou. Curated by Nancy Berliner, Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art, Weng Family Collection of Chinese Painting: Family and Friends is on view in the Asian Paintings Gallery from October 12, 2019 through August 9, 2020. Generously supported by the Tan Family Education Foundation. Additional support from the Rodger and Dawn Nordblom Fund for Chinese Paintings in Honor of Marjorie C. Nordblom, The June N. and John C. Robinson Fund for Chinese Paintings in Honor of Marjorie C. Nordblom, and the Joel Alvord and Lisa Schmid Alvord Fund.

The passion for art in the Weng family resulted not only in a superb collection of objects, but a reverence for art and scholarship that was passed down through generations. A member of the 19th generation of the family, Wan-go Weng recalls watching and listening as a young boy while his family admired and discussed works of art in their home—the same objects that he would inherit in 1948 and bring to the U.S. Throughout the gallery are works that carry the personal touches of the Weng family, including a large one-character auspicious calligraphy made for his son by Weng Tonghe (1830–1904), who built the greater part of the collection. Many of the works also feature colophons, or personal inscriptions, written by family members, revealing deep personal connections with individual pieces and the memories they evoked. For example, Weng Tonghe wrote on Chen Hongshou’s The three hermits: plum, chrysanthemum, and narcissus (1651): “My father liked to recite the poem [on the painting] and always kept the scroll with him. Every time I unroll the scroll, tears flow uncontrollably.”

The role and deep significance of friendship also manifests throughout the gallery. The interaction among friends when discoursing artworks was often recorded through colophons, recalling such gatherings or noting that a painting was given as a gift to a friend. The exhibition space is designed to evoke the atmosphere of a Chinese garden, a place where friends would often come together to view paintings in natural light. In addition to 19 works from the gift, the gallery includes a large decorative rock, as would be seen in most gardens as a reminder of the larger natural environment, and examples of fine 17th-century huanghuali furniture. A contemporary handscroll by Wan-go Weng, Elegant Gathering at the Laixiju Residence (1985) (1986), commemorates a momentous gathering held at his New England home, attended by six of the world’s most respected authorities on Chinese painting. In May 1985, these scholars and friends made the journey to Wan-go Weng’s retreat in the mountains to examine the family’s famed painting collection. Other paintings illustrate friends gathered to write poems together, as is depicted throughout the Suzhou Series album (about 1490) by Shen Zhou (1427–1509).

Exhibition Highlights

  • The handscroll Nine Letters to Home (after 1523) by Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), one of the greatest Ming-dynasty artists and calligraphers, demonstrates the elegance of the artist’s well-trained brush as well as moving spontaneity. The nine letters, written by Wen Zhengming to his wife and sons while he was residing in Beijing for an official posting, also portray an emotionality not usually seen in his more formal works.
  • A collaboration between Wang Hui (1632–1717) and Jiao Bingzhen (active late 17th to early 18th centuries), Portrait of An Qi in His Garden (1698) depicts a powerful salt merchant and art collector in his garden estate, a symbol of his refined status and cultural sophistication. This painting was gifted to Weng Tonghe in 1897 by Aixinjueluo Tingyong, a young scholar whom Weng took under his wing. After the tragic execution of Tingyong during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Weng wrote a poignant inscription on the painting praising his friend and his accomplishments.
  • In Li Bai’s night revel in peach and plum garden (1650), Chen Hongshou (1598–1652) references a poem by China’s most celebrated poet, Li Bai (701–762), who describes the lavish drinking parties held in the Golden Valley garden. Appealing to the taste and connoisseurship of antique collectors of his time, Chen creates an evocative setting for such a gathering by displaying on the stone table an 11th century B.C.E. bronze vessel and a ceramic cup with crackled glaze typical of the 13th century C.E.
  • Popular in China since the Song dynasty, the theme of children playing is often considered to symbolize the aspiration for many descendants, appearing frequently in decorations on ceramics, metalwork and textiles. In Children Playing with Crickets (late 16th century), Hou Genyang (active 1575–1600) succeeds in presenting the auspicious theme while also communicating the joy inherent in the absorbing play of children.
  • The character for tiger, hu, can act as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Weng Tonghe’s hu calligraphies were particularly sought after, as the character was believed to gain potency when written by a prominent person, like him, who was born in the year of the tiger. Included in the show is a highly auspicious hu written in 1890 or 1902 for his greatgrandson, Weng Zhilian, the adoptive father of Wan-go Weng.

Art of Asia and China at the MFA

Among the finest in the world, the MFA’s collection of Asian art covers the creative achievements of more than half of the world’s population over the course of five millennia. The collection encompasses Japanese, Chinese and Indian painting and sculpture; Japanese prints and metalwork; Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese ceramics; and the arts of the Islamic world; as well as contemporary works from across the region. The strength of the Chinese collection lies in masterworks of sculpture, painting and ceramics. Highlights include Buddhist stone sculpture and early handscrolls that are among the most famous Chinese paintings in the world, including Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (early 12th century, Emperor Huizong) and Nine Dragons (first half of the 13th century, Chen Rong). The collection is rich in imperial stonewares and porcelain, as well as extensive holdings of textiles.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Founded on February 4, 1870, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), stands on the historic homelands of the Massachusett people, a site which has long served as a place of meeting and exchange among different nations. The Museum opened its doors to the public on July 4, 1876—the nation’s centennial—at its original location in Copley Square. Over the next several decades, the MFA’s collection and visitation grew exponentially, and in 1909, the Museum moved to its current home on Huntington Avenue. Today, the MFA houses a global collection encompassing nearly 500,000 works of art, from ancient to contemporary, and welcomes approximately 1.2 million visitors each year to celebrate the human experience through art as well as innovative exhibitions and programs. In 2017, Matthew Teitelbaum, the 11th director in the Museum’s history, unveiled MFA 2020, a three-year Strategic Plan that articulated a forward-looking vision for the Museum to become an institution of the moment and more connected to the community. The spirit of collaboration and engagement at the core of MFA 2020 has been brought to life over the past three years through the implementation of more than 50 initiatives, the full slate of which will be realized during the Museum’s 150th anniversary year.

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