Women and East Asian Art

Palace Ladies Bathing Infants

Bathing infants

Zhou Wenju, traditionally attributed, Palace Ladies Bathing Infants. Twelfth to thirteenth century, Southern Song period. Album leaf, ink and color on silk, 23 x 24.5 cm. Freer Gallery of Art.

In Palace Ladies Bathing Infants from the Southern Song dynasty (twelfth to the thirteenth century), Zhou Wenju illustrates a horizontal composition with the use of fine lines to show three three-dimensional palace ladies in a washroom attending to the bathing and dressing of four infants. The curved lines convey the palace ladies’ energies moving about the free space thereby softening the art’s composition. The absence of background to contextualize the painting accentuates the palace ladies’ collaborations and movements in space. The palace ladies’ garments are all green and white, muted, dull, and have angular drapery pleats. In addition to them wearing related clothes, their hairstyles, hairpins, physical types, and bodily movements link them in unison. They are even homogeneously attending to an infant in this art. The palace ladies’ faces are all featureless and inexpressive, which also suggests them being sad and bored by their undertakings.[1]

This artwork is also composed of two discreet pyramids depicting the triangular formations created by the subjects’ locations. Comprehensively, the first is the three palace ladies grouped about a golden-colored tub bathing and clothing four infants. The two palace ladies and two infants on either side of the painting, and lone palace lady and two infants to the center form the three points of the triangle. The second is an inverted triangle formed by the lone palace lady and two infants to the center of the artwork.


A closer look at the inverted triangle formed by the lone palace lady and two infants

The two subtle pyramids provide both depth and dimension to this art piece. Plus, the subjects’ eye contact with one another guides the viewer on where to look across the space and also links them from one scene to the next. The two palace ladies on either side of the art frame this piece by providing a beginning and conclusion as well.

This painting aggregately shows how palace ladies interacted with one another to do the informal everyday menial activities necessary of them in court; therefore, is an example of a role that women would undertake in society during this period. The women’s appearances and colorful garments are also homogeneous stressing their dynamic social interactions with one another.


Author: Sarah Morgan


[1] Wen C. Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th-14th Century. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 21.

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