When 27-year-old Giuseppe Castiglione boarded the sailing ship that would carry him from Italy to China, he probably had no idea that he would spend the rest of his adult life there, embraced by emperors and immersed in a culture very different from his own.
Born in 1688 in Milan, Castiglione began studying art as a youth, learning to paint at the renowned Botteghe degli Stampatori studio. There, he was influenced by Andrea Pozzo, a well-known mural painter as well as a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). In 1707, at the age of 19, Castiglione formally entered the order and traveled to the city of Genoa for further training.
A few years later, Castiglione was sent to the Jesuits’ China mission, arriving in Beijing in 1715, another in a wave of Roman Catholic missionaries that had begun flowing into the country almost two centuries before. Between 1552 and 1800, a total of 920 Jesuits from Italy, Portugal and France traveled to China to take part in the order’s work of converting the Chinese to Christianity.
At the time of their peak influence, members of the Jesuit delegation were among the Chinese emperor’s most valued and trusted advisors, holding numerous prestigious posts in the imperial government and working as mechanics, musicians, painters, instrument makers and in other areas that required a degree of technical expertise.
With the ascension of the Yongzheng emperor in 1723, Castiglione’s fortunes changed dramatically: he received an imperial commission for a work later titled One Hundred Horses. Painted on a large silk hand scroll measuring a little more than 26 feet in length, the painting took Castiglione five years to complete and is considered his greatest work. In late 1735, One Hundred Horses was presented to the newly enthroned Qianlong Emperor and declared a masterpiece. Shortly after, Castiglione was named the Emperor’s principal court painter.
Over time, Castiglione, who had taken the Chinese name Lang Shi’ning in the early 1720s, adapted his European painting style to Chinese themes. In doing so, he created a new, hybrid approach that combined Western realism with traditional Chinese conventions of composition. In addition to deft draftsmanship, his process involved the use of discrete European pictorial features and techniques such as chiaroscuro, perspective and brushwork.
The Qianlong Emperor held Castiglione’s artistic skills in high regard, and the Italian spent many years in the court painting various subjects —among them, dogs. According to Kenneth Hsieh of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum (where most of his work is housed), “In 1747, Giuseppe Castiglione is recorded as being ordered to do 10 paintings of fine hounds.” Each dog’s portrait bears an inscription in Chinese, Manchu and Mongolian that provides the dog’s name as well as the name of the official who presented the dog as tribute. The series, titled Ten Fine Hounds, is one of his more famous.
The choice of Hounds as subjects is in keeping with their cultural importance as hunting dogs. By the Han period (206 BCE to 220 AD), an “inspector of kennels” oversaw the raising and training of hunting dogs for the court. In The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History, Thomas T. Allsen describes early Han tomb tiles adorned with images of large, collared dogs “in the typical pointing attitude: the body in a slightly crouching position, neck extended horizontally, and one forepaw bent under and raised several inches above ground.” At the other end of the Chinese canine spectrum were the Pekinese, cosseted companion dogs who for centuries could only be owned by members of the Imperial family. (Interestingly, the results of a DNA study published in 2004 showed that the Pekinese is one of a handful of distinctly diverse breeds— Siberian Husky, Afghan Hound, Akita and Saluki, and others —most closely related to dogs’ wolflike ancestor.)