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Photo: © Kristina Kleutghen

Looking and Lenses: Early Modern Chinese Optical Devices and Print Culture

When the first modern Chinese treatise on optics appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, it was both inspired by and illustrated with a wide range of optical devices that had circulated in China for nearly three hundred years. Although originally imported from abroad, devices such as spectacles, telescopes, camera obscuras, peepboxes, and more were domesticated almost immediately. Occupying an unusual space that included science and technology as well as art and entertainment, a distinct relationship developed between optical devices and print culture in China. A wide range of printed works developed from this connection, including images depicting the devices alone and in use; works meant to be viewed through lenses; and illustrations appearing in technical and commercial treatises. Focusing on the forgotten relationship between optical devices and printed images during the Ming and Qing dynasties, this lecture integrates the histories of Chinese art and Chinese science to rediscover the visual and material culture of looking and lenses in late imperial China.


Kristina Kleutghen, Ph.D., is the David W. Mesker Associate Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her Ph.D. in the History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University, where she specialized in Chinese art. Her research on Ming- and Qing-dynasty China's artistic interactions with Europe and across Asia, including links to science and mathematics, has been supported by the Blakemore Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Getty Research Institute. She is the author of numerous chapters in edited volumes and of articles that have appeared in such journals as Art History, Late Imperial China, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Archives of Asian Art. Her first book, Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, appeared in 2015 with University of Washington Press. Currently she is working on two new book manuscripts, both also under advance contract with University of Washington Press: The Local Exotic: Fabricating Foreign Taste in High Qing Court Decorative Arts, and Lens onto the World: Optical Devices, Art, Science, and Society in China.