Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Door from the Imperial Palace of Beijing

This piece once protected treasures as a cabinet door at the Imperial Palace of Beijing. It was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, whose reign lasted the longest in Chinese history from 1735 until 1796. Under this Emperor, there was a resurgence in Confucian culture and ideology.  He wanted to preserve and restore not only the ideas, but also the extensive art collections that were the pride of past dynasties such as the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368–1644). Works of architecture, painting, porcelain, and especially jade and ivory thrived under the Qianlong Emperor. This particular door was carved from a special type of wood called Zitan, which can range in color from a purple-tinted red to jet black. The Chinese considered Zitan to be the most precious wood, and it was reserved solely for Imperial use. The front of this door features the five-clawed Dragon surrounded by clouds. The five-clawed dragon was also a symbol of Imperial power and strength. Only the Emperor could be represented by a dragon with five claws; used for anyone else would be considered treason. On the back of this door, there is an inscription carved in Chinese and Manchurian which reads, “By Imperial Command during the 19th year in the reign of Qianlong [1755], Chen Yuzhang carved this.” This door was originally donated to become a part of the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Collection in 1980, and has since been displayed in two different exhibitions in 1997 and 2008.

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