Court Ladies or Pin-Up Girls? Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Takes a Close Look at Women in Chinese Paintings

BOSTON, MA (November 13, 2014)—Whether subtly seductive or overtly erotic, artists of many cultures have a long history of suggestively depicting women in order to titillate and entice patrons. Court Ladies or Pin-Up Girls? Chinese Paintings from the MFA, Boston (December 20, 2014–July 19, 2015) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), features more than 30 Chinese paintings, prints, posters and photographs of women from the 11th through the 21st centuries. The finely crafted works, including recent MFA acquisitions, depict fantasies of male artists and their diverse patrons. Although many initially appear to be modest depictions of beautiful women, recent research indicates that some may have been considered highly suggestive when first created. On view in the Asian Paintings Gallery, the exhibition highlights include one of the MFA’s great masterpieces of Chinese painting, Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (Picture of Pounding Silk) (early 12th century, Emperor Huizong), as well as turn-of-the-century hand-colored photographs of courtesans, 1930s advertisement posters, 20th-century propaganda posters and 18th-century erotic albums. Instead of reflecting traditional Confucian ideals of painting women as embodiments of virtue, these works illustrate the realities of how artists have imagined women throughout the centuries. Presented with support from the Rodger and Dawn Nordblom Fund for Chinese Paintings in Honor of Marjorie C. Nordblom and The June N. and John C. Robinson Fund for Chinese Paintings in Honor of Marjorie C. Nordblom.

“Although many may be more familiar with Chinese landscape painting, figure painting also has a rich, varied and equally expressive role in Chinese culture,” said Nancy Berliner, Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art at the MFA. “In a sense, this exhibition is not about women, but about men. How men imagined or desired women to be. The paintings here, all by men—women artists usually painted birds and flowers—whether evoking virtue or sensual pleasures, reflect perspectives, or really fantasies, of the male artists and their male clients."

Across history, physical allure has been a central focus of depicting women in art. China’s rich, ever-changing visual culture has produced images of women in accordance with contemporary fashions, styles, aesthetics and concepts of beauty. The title of the scroll Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (Or Picture of Pounding Silk) reflects the subtle symbolism that has influenced modern interpretations of Chinese art. When this scroll arrived at the MFA in 1912, the curator proffered the title “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk.” In Chinese, since its creation, the painting has always been known as “Picture of Pounding Silk.” Recently, based on erotic poetry of the time that likened the pounding of silk with sexual movements, a new layer of meaning has been proposed for the work—by making clothes for a man, the women in the work demonstrate their deep longing and desire for him.

Similarly, research into 17th- and 18th-century Chinese paintings of women has revealed that works previously believed to be of sisters, wives or concubines, were in fact paintings of courtesans. Eight Beauties on the Balcony of a Brothel (1736), was once thought to be a portrait of eight concubines in a Qing artist’s household. New findings now indicate that the painting may have hung in a dining or drinking establishment as an advertisement for a brothel. In addition to their alluring demeanor, the women reveal their professional status by objects they hold—the organically-shaped citron (foshou), featured in many of the paintings in this exhibition, is, for instance, an unambiguous Chinese symbol for lovemaking. The work was restored by the MFA’s Asian Conservation Studio in 2012, repairing damage from dust and discoloration—likely from water—while also undoing previous restoration work that was not in harmony with original materials used by the artist.

Other works in the exhibition are more direct about the subjects they depict. The term for erotic art in Chinese is “spring palace paintings,” as the spring season is a euphemism for sexual relations. An album of 12 paintings, The Secret Spring (before 1821), exhibits an artist’s fantasy of life in the women’s quarters of a house. The women frolic among the gardens, lounge in their bedrooms, and play games, but—in the artist’s salacious eye—sex is never far from their minds. They pour over pornographic paintings, contemplate the offerings of erotic devices from an elderly female peddler, or engage in sexual escapades among themselves. One of the 12 works in Album of erotic paintings (mid-19th century) depicts a surreptitious “peeper” overhearing an intimate encounter—a common strategy in Chinese art that allows the viewer to project him or herself into the narrative of the work. Created by the celebrated painter Yin Qi (Chinese, mid-19th century), the album demonstrates the artist’s imagination with a variety of sexual positions.

While most Chinese erotica are small, intimate albums or handscrolls, a late-19th or early-20th-century Woodblock print of a sultry woman was clearly made to be pasted on the wall. For those who could not afford beautiful paintings, these colorful woodblock prints were an economic alternative. Sold on the street during the New Year holidays, the prints depicted beautiful women, famous legends or lucky images. By the 1920s and 30s, advertising companies were making modern renditions of these inexpensive works—mass producing colorful promotional posters that could be given away by companies as gifts. Many foreign companies commissioned posters such as Please use BM & Co Brand Fertilizer (about 1930-35, Wang Yiman), which endorsed a materialistic lifestyle by featuring fashionable and seductive women. Later in the 20th century, strict morality policies of the socialist government of the People’s Republic of China banned such suggestive images. However, many men still favored posters with sexual appeal, such as Drilling and training for the Revolution; Spinning and Weaving for the People (1974) by Yang Shuntai (Chinese, born 1947).

The most recent work in the exhibition, Embroidered Spring Dreams, Illustrations of the Golden Vase Plum Poems (2002), provides a contemporary context for exploring images of women in Chinese art. Created by artist Hong Lei (Chinese, born in 1960), the work illustrates the great Chinese erotic novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase—originally penned in the 1500s. Instead of replicating common woodblock illustrations of the book, the artist focuses on the book’s carnal encounters. Diverging from typical techniques, Hong Lei chose the traditionally feminine art form of embroidery to depict these erotic fantasies.

Art of 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. The ceramic collection is rich in imperial stonewares and porcelain, while an extensive collection of Chinese textiles is overseen by the David & Roberta Logie Department of Textile & Fashion Arts. The MFA’s seven galleries dedicated to Chinese art highlight sculpture, ceramics and Bronze Age art, as well as Chinese furnishings, scholarly objects and Buddhist art. A special installation, Beyond the Screen, evokes an elegant courtyard household from the late Ming period, highlighting Chinese furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.



Amelia Kantrovitz