Collection Regarded as One of the Finest in Private Hands, Spans 13 Centuries and Five Imperial Dynasties
BOSTON (December 13, 2018)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), announces today that it has received the largest and most significant gift of Chinese paintings and calligraphy in the Museum’s history: the Wan-go H. C. Weng Collection, comprising 183 objects that were acquired by and passed down through six generations of a single family. The donation was made by Wan-go H. C. Weng—one of the most respected collectors and connoisseurs of Chinese painting in the world—and his family. Weng’s great-great-grandfather assembled the core of the collection during the 19th century.
The Weng Collection is considered among the greatest private holdings of Chinese art in the U.S., distinguished for its superb quality, abundance of work by the great masters of Chinese art, fine condition and well-documented provenance. Encompassing 130 paintings, 31 works of calligraphy, 18 ink rubbings and four textiles, the gift spans 13 centuries and five imperial dynasties. Particularly rich in representation of art from the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) eras, the collection complements the MFA’s unparalleled and internationally renowned holdings of masterpieces from the earlier Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties. Weng has been a longtime supporter of the Museum. He has donated 21 additional works to the MFA within the last decade—including the 53-foot-long scroll 10,000 Miles along the Yangzi River (1699, Wang Hui), given in honor of his 100th birthday and displayed in a solo exhibition that was on view from July through September 2018. His most recent donation further elevates the Museum’s Chinese paintings collection into one of the foremost outside of China. An exhibition of highlights from the Weng Collection will go on view at the MFA in fall 2019.
“On rare occasions, there are gifts to museums that have the ability to transform collections. This is one of those truly remarkable moments,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “This collection represents a range of artworks—dynamically painted landscapes and flowers, depictions of great and legendary figures from Chinese cultural history, and expressive, poetic works of calligraphy—that will beautifully complement the MFA’s existing masterpieces. We are grateful for Mr. Weng’s tireless research and dedication to scholarship, and are committed to sharing his extraordinary collection with future generations.”
The Weng Collection is remarkable not only for its masterpieces of brush and ink spanning 1,300 years, but also its unique journey to the MFA, having been assembled by and passed down through one of China’s most notable families. The scholar and connoisseur Weng Tonghe (1830–1904), who acquired the greater part of the collection, was a preeminent figure in 19th-century China. He held some of the highest positions in government, including tutor to two of the last emperors of the Qing dynasty. Passed down from father to son through six generations, the collection has most recently been cared for by Wan-go Weng (born 1918), who moved to the U.S. in 1938. An accomplished filmmaker, poet, historian and artist, Weng is a modern-day Renaissance man who has devoted himself to the preservation and study of China’s cultural heritage.
“I started looking at Chinese paintings very early on. My whole life is connected to Chinese paintings and calligraphy,” said Weng. “The first museum I ever visited in the U.S. was the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it became my museum. I am so happy that both collections are together now—it’s almost like destiny.”
The Weng Collection is strongly oriented toward the literati school of Chinese painting, an intellectual and expressive style that emerged during the Song dynasty. The donation includes seven works by Ming-dynasty artist and art critic Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who articulated and set forth theories of literati art that influenced artists of the following four centuries. The quintessential Chinese scholar-painter, Dong advocated for an appreciation of classical references and abstract values rather than realistic details—later known as the “Orthodox School” of painting. Wang Hui (1632–1717), the most distinguished of Dong’s followers and considered the greatest painter of his time, is generously represented in the Weng Collection with 11 works of art. In addition to superb examples of landscape painting—the artist’s most characteristic theme—the gift also includes the painting Portrait of An Qi in His Garden (1698), a collaboration between Wang Hui and the celebrated Imperial painter Jiao Bingzhen (active late 17th to early 18th centuries). The handscroll depicts a powerful salt merchant and art collector, An Qi, in his garden estate, a symbol of his refined status and cultured sophistication. Wang Hui is among the Six Masters of the Early Qing Period whose works are contained in the Weng Collection, alongside landscapists Wu Li (1632–1718) and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715) and flower painter Yun Shouping (1633–1690). As legend holds, Yun Shouping abandoned landscape painting because he felt he could not compete with the superior skills of his close friend Wang Hui. However, the exquisite Landscape Album with Calligraphy (1665) reveals that he also excelled at painting this genre.
Another highlight of the collection is Wang Yuanqi’s Western Hills after Spring Rain (1701), which showcases the artist’s distinctive brushwork style and brilliance in incorporating the influence of earlier masters while maintaining his own aesthetic. The handscroll joins Southern Hills after Spring Rain (late 17th–early 18th century), previously given to the MFA by Weng, to further exemplify the artist’s finest work. In contrast, the handscroll Autumn Boating Moon (1748) by Hua Yan (1682-1756), one of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou,” depicts a scholar in his boat, gazing at the full moon—a scene reminiscent of many ancient Chinese poems. Following the painting are colophons written by renowned scholars when they viewed the work together at an 18th-century gathering.
The Suzhou Sceneries (1484–1504) by the acclaimed artist Shen Zhou (1427–1509) is a masterpiece of the collection that demonstrates the integration of paintings, calligraphy and poetry. Within the intimate album, the artist describes his visits to the scenic sights in his home region of Suzhou. The works are fine examples of Shen Zhou’s distinctive brushstroke style and poetic sensibilities, which have been passionately lauded by critics for more than five centuries.
“It is moving to be able to work with objects that are so intimately connected to one family—and have a cumulative history that extends well beyond their own time periods,” said Nancy Berliner, Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art. “We are thrilled and deeply honored to be able tell new stories in the MFA galleries with this singular and precious collection of masterworks, and to further bring to life the rich and still-evolving history of Chinese art and culture.”
Numerous works of calligraphy—the highest art form in Chinese culture—are included in the gift. The Chinese writing system consists of characters created by multiple strokes laid down in an established order—a controlled movement that expresses the inner integrity of the person yielding the brush. Examples of calligraphy within the Weng Collection date from the Tang (618–907) dynasty to the 20th century. 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. Later calligraphic works in the collection include Calligraphy in the Styles of the Early Masters (1702) by Zhu Da (1628–1705)—also known as Bada Shanren—one of the great eccentric masters of the 17th century, known for his unconventionality and expressive brushstrokes. The album is an excellent example of Zhu’s calligraphic prowess, displaying his interpretation of the work of numerous ancient masters. The donation of these works will enable the Museum to more fully display the richness of Chinese calligraphy and its expressions.
Treasured calligraphies in imperial China were often carved into stone, from which connoisseurs then made ink rubbings as copies. These rubbings were a way of preserving and reproducing art for greater distribution, similar to printing. The Daguan Tie is a collection of rubbings by famous calligraphers that was compiled under the direction of the Huizong emperor in the early 12th century. The original calligraphies were carefully traced and engraved into stone blocks, from which ink rubbings were then taken and compiled into books. The Weng Collection contains one of the only surviving copies of the Daguan Tie from the Song dynasty—crucial for the study of early masters of calligraphy, as very few of the original works reproduced in the Daguan Tie have survived.
A Family’s Personal Touches
Throughout the collection are works that carry the personal touches of the Weng family. The gift includes seven paintings by Chen Hongshou (1598–1652), one of the great Ming masters. He was a favorite of collector Weng Tonghe and the subject of a monumental, scholarly tome published in 1997 by Wan-go Weng. The collection also includes a set of the very rare Cards for a Drinking Game Depicting Historical Figures (1651) designed by the artist. Weng Tonghe so prized these finely printed gambling cards, each depicting a historical figure and story, that he wrote new title pages, colophons and poetry on them. Within the collection is also one of Weng Tonghe’s own works, demonstrating his talent for calligraphy, as well as a handscroll by Wan-go Weng, Elegant Gathering at the Laixiju Studio (1990). This special contemporary painting commemorates a momentous gathering held at his home in 1985, attended by six of the world’s most respected historians of Chinese painting. Four of the visitors traveled to the U.S. from mainland China, and the occasion was an auspicious one for these scholars, who were seeing the fabled Weng Collection for the first time.
“This exceptional gift enables the MFA to tell a richer and fuller story of Chinese literati art and culture, which still has a great impact on Chinese society today. We are deeply grateful for Mr. Weng’s trust and confidence in the Museum and the Art of Asia department, and are committed to bring a new public life to the collection through research, conservation, display and interpretation,” said Christina Yu Yu, Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia.
Art of Asia 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.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. 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; Art of Africa and Oceania; Art of Ancient Greece and Rome; Art of Ancient Egypt, Nubia and the Near East; Prints and Drawings; Photography; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 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. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25), while five Open Houses offer the opportunity to visit the Museum 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. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.