1890 Beijing

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Painted during the last decade of the 19th century, this portrait of Beijing straddles the line between realistic and imaginative artistic depiction. If you find it difficult to believe that this is a portrait of the heart of China’s capital under the Qing dynasty from just over 120 years ago, you have reason to trust your instincts. The image feels far older, and that is part of the artist’s design on his viewers. The unknown artist’s imaginative depiction of Beijing as a provincial city, in which nature retains control over a rapidly urbanizing city, preserves a tradition of natural landscape painting in what was, at the time, a landscape under threat. We have only to look today at Beijing’s ubiquitous skyscrapers, not to mention the 20 million inhabitants of the modern city, to know that the artist’s fin-de-siecle dream of Beijing was a fragile one, rooted in the past, soon to be uprooted in the 20th century.