When Salt Was Gold: Yangzhou, City of Riches and Art features more than a dozen paintings, from monumental wall hangings to intimate album leaves, from the museum and private collections that illustrate the artistic production of Yangzhou, the most economically and culturally flourishing city of 18th-century China.
Situated north of the Yangzi River along the Grand Canal, Yangzhou linked cities in the lower Yangzi delta with major political headquarters in the north. A center of Buddhism and bronze mirror production during the Tang dynasty (618–906), the region has coastal marshes that provided sea salt for the empire and generated unprecedented income for Yangzhou merchants, who had been managing its distribution on behalf of the government since the 1600s.
Yangzhou’s wealth attracted artists, craftsmen, and literati who sought to make a living. Their patrons, mostly salt merchants, had mansions and gardens so grand that they hosted the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) emperor on his Inspection Tours to the south. The merchant class sought recognition through establishing close ties to the court and by socializing with literati-officials.
Painters catered to the tastes of merchants and urban dwellers, combining the aesthetics of the literati with novelties in subject matter and style. Eccentricity, humor, a sketchy approach, and close-up compositions are characteristic of their works for sale, innovations that would later inspire modern artists in Shanghai.