In the late nineteenth century, as China entered a period of political and economic decline, numerous artists were attracted to the relative safety of Shanghai, a treaty port where traditional Chinese painting styles were increasingly influenced by new imported media, including photography, lithography, color posters, and mass-circulation newspapers. It was in this cosmopolitan environment that a distinctive style of painting was born.
Following the first Opium War, Shanghai, located close to the sea at the heart of the prosperous lower Yangzi River delta, burgeoned into China’s leading commercial and transportation center. In the 1850s, as Taiping rebel armies occupied large portions of southeastern China, many wealthy landowners and merchants took refuge in the foreign-controlled “concessions,” which became havens of economic prosperity. Benefiting from an influx of refugees as well as from expanding trade with the West, Shanghai rapidly shed its regional character and became an international melting pot.
By the 1860s Shanghai’s mercantile elite had begun to challenge the prerogatives of the traditional scholar-gentry class, introducing a fresh source of patronage in the arts. Rejecting orthodox interpretations of the literati style that had dominated painting during the preceding three hundred years, the new class of patrons favored portraiture, popular narrative subjects, and colorful flower-and-bird compositions. Responding to the demands of the market, Shanghai artists eschewed the convention-bound idioms of seventeenth-century orthodox masters perpetuated by the Qing court and instead drew inspiration from the highly expressive and dramatically charged imagery and brushwork of seventeenth-century individualists and the “eccentric” painters of eighteenth-century Yangzhou. While basing their art on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prototypes, however, Shanghai artists preferred an even greater degree of exaggeration in forms and a brighter palette—stressing visual impact over symbolism or narrative content. Ironically, the growing presence of Japanese and Western printed books, photographs, and advertising led to a renewed interest in traditional painting, which remained the prevailing trend through the end of the century.
There are many painters associated with the Shanghai School. Some of the most notable ones include Xugu (虛谷, 1824–1896), Pu Hua (蒲華, 1832–1911), Ren Bonian (任伯年, 1840–1895), and Wu Changshuo (吳昌碩, 1844–1927).