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"Work and Commerce: Scenes of Everyday Life in Chinese Painting" June 19, 2004–January 17, 2005
Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523
Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Public only: 202.633.1000

This summer, the Freer Gallery of Art opens an exhibition that gives an unusual perspective on Chinese painting by showcasing works picturing the daily activities of the common people. "Work and Commerce: Scenes of Everyday Life in Chinese Painting," presenting 35 paintings dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries, will be on view until January 17, 2005. Labels discuss each activity pictured and—where relevant—its underlying social or philosophical meaning. Poems accompanying some of the paintings are translated.

Most Chinese paintings were executed by scholar-artists who only pictured people and events that served as examples of proper behavior, or in metaphorical scenes whose meaning was readily apparent to contemporary Chinese viewers. Commoners therefore usually appeared only as part of the background scenery and were rarely pictured in detail, except to demonstrate the bustling and industrious society that benefited from good government and benevolent rule.

Two long handscrolls from the 14th century Yuan dynasty depicting the 21 stages of rice cultivation and the 24 stages of silk farming form the centerpiece of the exhibition. These works—attributed to Cheng Qi (active second half of 13th century)—are based on now lost 12th century works by Lou Shou (1090–1162) who composed a series of 45 poems about rice and silk production and created a set of matching illustrations.

Other works on view focus on tradesmen, peddlers, and fisher folk; woodcutters symbolizing the freedom of the scholar recluse; herd boys symbolizing the innocence of youth; and their herds symbolizing the ascension of a capable and virtuous ruler. Intricately detailed paintings depicting bullock carts and merchant caravans, several examples of which are also on view, became popular during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) when they were probably purchased by wealthy merchants. Other works of note include:

  • A 16th-century handscroll by Qiu Ying-based on a famous composition from the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) depicting a spring festival on the Bian River both in and outside the city walls of the imperial capital at Dongjing. Among other sights, the painting shows boats laden with passengers, grain and other goods; busy shops and stalls bearing signs advertising their wares and nimble street performers, martial arts entertainers and acrobats as well as an iron works and a timber yard.

  • Paintings of knick-knack and toy peddlers—a common sight in the prosperous cosmopolitan centers of the Yangzi delta region. This subject was first popularized in the 12th and 13th centuries by figure painters displaying their drafting skills.

The Freer and Sackler galleries together form the national museum of Asian art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. Admission is free. This summer from June 24–July 29, the galleries remain open on Thursday evenings until 8 p.m. for "Art Night on the Mall." The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 357-1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries' Web site at

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