The Art of Calligraphy

The Art Museum’s collection of Chinese calligraphy may be considered one of the finest outside of Asia. Its formation is primarily the legacy of John B. Elliott and Wen C. Fong, two Princetonians who first met as members of the class of 1951. In 1967, Elliott, already a dedicated and passionate art collector, approached Fong, then professor of Chinese art history at Princeton and faculty curator at the Art Museum, with the idea of starting a collection of Chinese art. Within weeks of their meeting, Elliott acquired Scroll for Zhang Datong by Huang Tingjian, a masterwork of Song dynasty calligraphy dating to 1100. Calligraphy would remain the primary focus of his Chinese art acquisitions for the next thirty years.

Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361), Chinese, Eastern Jin dynasty, 317–420, Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Xingrang tie 行穰帖) (detail). Handscroll, Tang dynasty (618–907) tracing copy; ink on ying huang paper. Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951The timing of Elliott’s collecting activities could not have been more fortunate. Restrictions on acquiring Chinese art in Asia were lifted in 1971, and together Fong and Elliott traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in search of great works. Not only did they find extremely important examples of calligraphy on the market, but they also faced relatively little competition from other buyers or collectors. They made the most of these opportunities, and Elliott amassed an unrivaled collection. Elliott and his family made generous donations to the Museum during his lifetime, and upon his death in 1997, the remainder of his collection of Chinese calligraphy came to the Art Museum.

By focusing on Chinese calligraphy, Elliott was following a long tradition in East Asia of venerating the written word. Whereas in Renaissance Europe, painting, sculpture, and architecture came to be viewed as the apex of artistic achievement, in China, Japan, and Korea calligraphy was the preeminent art form. During the Bronze Age in China, court calligraphers produced beautiful inscriptions for monumental display, examples of which can be seen among the bronze ritual vessels on view in the Museum’s galleries. The early history of calligraphy in China is dominated by the work of professional court scribes. However, in the centuries following the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), Chinese aristocrats began to take up calligraphy as a personal and aesthetic practice, which not only elevated the social status of the art form but also changed its nature in fundamental ways. Although command of the written word and the ability to write beautifully were crucial responsibilities for Chinese elites who served in the government bureaucracy, by the fourth century the elegant writing of characters had come to be thought of as something more. It was seen as the medium through which a person’s thoughts, feelings, and artistry were best conveyed, the visual manifestation of the writer’s inner character and cultural cultivation. Later, even rudimentary epistles by famous calligraphers were collected by admirers who in turn traced copies that were widely circulated. In this manner, a calligraphic canon and market rapidly developed, providing both originals and copies, often indistinguishable to the purchaser, that were then used as models for novices to emulate.Wang Xizhi 王羲之 (303–361), Chinese, Eastern Jin dynasty, 317–420, Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Xingrang tie 行穰帖) (detail). Handscroll, Tang dynasty (618–907) tracing copy; ink on ying huang paper. Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951

Perhaps the best example of this historical phenomena is the case of Wang Xizhi (303–361), the most famous calligrapher in Chinese history. No works in Wang’s own hand survive. The Tang emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), who based his own style on Wang’s writing and promoted it as the imperial model, attempted to collect every surviving example of Wang’s calligraphy. Due in part to the success of his ambition, today we only have traced copies of Wang’s work, the earliest dating from the Tang dynasty (618–907). The Art Museum’s collection includes one of these extremely rare Tang dynasty tracings, entitled Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest. The work is a fragment of one of Wang’s letters that was written in a kind of semi-cursive called running script. In this script, characters are abbreviated and strokes are linked through the continuous motion of the brush. Difficult to transcribe and translate—a result of now-obscure references—many of Wang’s letters, such as this one, are no longer fully intelligible. Nevertheless, we may admire the way Wang manipulated brush and ink to create an object of beauty in which the strokes and dots of the characters convey the rhythmic energy of the process of their creation.

Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045–1105), Chinese, Northern Song dynasty, 960–1127, Scroll for Zhang Datong (Zeng Zhang Datong guwen ti ji 贈張大同古文) (detail), 1100. Handscroll; ink on paper. Gift of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951The calligraphy on display in this installation dates from the fourth century to the present day and includes examples from China and Japan as well as Persia. Together these works demonstrate the written language’s lasting appeal as a vehicle used to create highly individualized works of art.


Zoe S. Kwok

Assistant Curator of Asian Art