ART FOR THE MARKET: COMMERCIALISM IN REN YI'S (1840-1895) FIGURE PAINTING
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Ren Yi (1840-1895) was one of the most accomplished and influential Shanghai painters of the late nineteenth century. He produced a great deal of artwork, much of it figure painting. This thesis will examine the economic aspect of Ren Yi's figure paintings in terms of the circumstances under which the artworks were produced, their subject matter, style, and historical background. Ren's figure painting was done not just for art's sake, but in a broad sense for a commercial purpose, specifically for the ready art market in Shanghai. Such commercialism is best manifested in three categories of Ren's figure painting, i.e. portraits, narratives depicting mythological, legendary and historical figures, and genre scenes of ordinary people. The three categories of Ren's figure painting suggest three strategies for Ren to successfully live by painting in Shanghai: (1) Making connections with influential art patrons and artists to establish himself in Shanghai, (2) catering to the tastes and needs of the populace (especially the newly rising merchants) to attract their attention and thus make a name in Shanghai, and (3) making his artwork close to reality and thus easily accessible to the common people so as to expand his potential audience and customer base. The commercialism in Ren's figure painting was first directly related to the social, economic, and cultural circumstances in Shanghai, a city that rapidly and dramatically developed into the largest and most prosperous metropolis in the late nineteenth century. Secondly, personally, as a professional painter who lived by painting, Ren Yi had to tailor his artworks to meet the demands of his patrons and potential customers so that he could support himself. Thirdly, from an historical standpoint, the commercialism manifested in eighteenth-century Yangzhou painting, especially in artworks by Yangzhou baguai (the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou), had significant impact on Ren Yi's figure painting.