The Ming Scholar’s Garden of the Astor Court
THE ASTOR COURT
Researched by Rochelle Almeida
Why is this space called the Astor Court?
The space usually referred to as The Astor Court is actually a Chinese Ming Scholar’s Garden but is so called because it was made possible by an endowment from Mrs. Brooke Astor.
Who is Brooke Astor?
Brooke Astor, a trustee of the MMA was one of the moving forces in the 1970s behind the reinstallation of the permanent galleries for Asian Art. She herself had lived in Peking, China, from the age of five until ten and had fond memories of tranquil gardens courts within the crowded city. It was she who suggested that a space of this kind should be included as a place of respite and contemplation for those visiting the conventional Asian galleries.
Significance and Meaning of Yin and Yang in Chinese Garden Courts:
The entire space exemplifies the importance of the Chinese concept of yin and yang (pronounced yong). This is basically a conceptualization of the world that underlies much Chinese thought and art. It recognizes the duality and the contrast in the nature of all things. Let’s look at some of the elements that embody this duality and the contrasts:
Even before you enter the garden, you must pass through what is called the Moon Gate. This is partly rounded and partly straight. It is made partly of dark stone and partly of light. As it draws you inside, it reveals only a small part of the interior. It frames a rectangular doorway (another contrast of shapes) through which successive spaces defined by colonnades and an alternating pattern of light and dark might be seen. The plaque just above the doorway in Chinese calligraphy reads: In Search of Quietude.
Now that we are inside the garden, let us examine some of the main elements that make up its composition:
Materials and Construction and History of the Installation:
All the materials used in this court are native to China from the wood of the covered promenade and pavilion, to the flooring, rocks and plants. Skilled craftsmen created each individual component and then a team of 27 Chinese engineers were brought to his country to carry out the installation. They took five months, from January to May of 1980 to assemble this space, and then returned to China. No nails at all were used in the structures or in the furniture within the Reception Room. The hallmark of ancient Chinese wood construction which used complex joinery instead of hammers and nails were used to create these structures.
There are four kinds of wood used in the Astor Court. The lattice and railings of the Ming Room are of gingko and camphor; the beams are of fir. Nan Wood, a rare species of broadleaf evergeen was used for the pillars of the walkway. Impervious to insects, Nan wood is prized for its durability and beautiful honey brown color.
Historic Influences on the Design on the Astor Court:
The design of the court is based on a small courtyard within a scholar’s garden in the city of Soozhou (pronounced Soo-Jho) in the scenic lake district, an affluent city on the Grand Canal. This is how the court would have looked during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), circa 1634. The Soozhou garden was called Wang Shi Yuan, the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets.
What is meant by the term “Scholar” in this context?
A scholar was an official of the court. His professional life was difficult and short-lived. He was required to uphold the Confucian ideal of unswerving loyalty to the sovereign, including the responsibility to speak frankly and criticize other scholars. At the same time, this might be viewed as treason and be punishable by death. Hence, the scholar had to walk a fine line between observing and commenting on the regime without antagonizing anyone. Little wonder that for escape from his stressful life, he would turn for contemplation and serenity to his garden.
The Astor Court is laid out on a north-south axis as it would have been in China.
What do we see in a Classical Chinese Garden Court?
A Scholar’s Garden always includes five elements: Architecture, Rocks, Plants, Water and Calligraphy or Literature.
This court has three typical garden structures: a covered walkway, a half-pavilion along the west wall, and a small reception hall called The Ming Room, where the Scholar would receive his visitors and be able to gaze upon his garden.
Walkway: The symmetry of the court is broken up by the pillars of the walkway on one side. Notice that this walkway is not straight, but involves a slight curvature which suggests that there is no straight path through life.
Half-Pavillion: This pavilion is made of tiles that came to us from China. A plaque above the vertical rock gives us its name: Cold Spring Pavillion, taking its name from the nearby pool. It is called the Beautiful Lady Pavillion.
The Ming Room: The moon watching terrace, what we call the Ming Room, is filled with magnificent 15th and 16th century Ming furniture and objects. It faces south, as does the most important seat within—that of the Scholar himself.
These are elements of architecture in the design.
These are found all over the garden and are central to Chinese landscapes. Rocks are seen in Chinese paintings, appearing as early as the 8th century. The term “scholar’s rock” is used to describe rocks of a distinctive shape, texture and color that were considered appropriate for display in a scholar’s studio. Rocks are replete with representational, symbolic and magical importance, evoking the grandeur of nature. A “good” rock reminds the viewer of the drama of mountains visited and stimulates the imagination. Described in literature as the bones of the earth, the rocks in this garden can symbolize the Five Sacred Mountains of China. The rocks here are limestone boulders—Taihu rocks, the most prized of garden rocks for their shape, size and color. If craftsmen were not satisfied with a rock, they did not hesitate to improve upon nature’s handiwork; after sculpting a rock would be left in water for an indefinite time to erode and age and cure.
The bamboo plants represent moral purity and are plentiful in Chinese gardens. Bamboo symbolizes the ability to stay strong in the midst of adversity—bamboo will bend easily in the wind but rarely breaks. It is hard, but hollow; lightweight, yet strong; utilitarian, yet graceful.
Rarely does one find flowers in a Chinese garden. If anything, we might see a few azaleas in the spring and perhaps some exotic orchids in the summer.
Water is indispensable in Chinese gardens, endowing the landscape with a visual and an aural treat. The viewer appreciates the delightful picture created by flowing water, but the sound is lilting and soothing to the ears and contributes to the air of serenity. The Chinese speak of water as nourishing, enriching and restorative.
Quotations from Literature are an essential feature of the garden court and denote the scholar’s own preoccupation. Poems which tend to be brief, suggestive and non-intellectual abound.
The Astor Court epitomizes the Chinese artist’s ideal—to achieve harmony through identity with the rhythms of the natural world.
Hearn, Maxwell: Gallery Talk to Highlights Trainees, March 5, 2001 (from class notes transcribed by Alix Devine).
Murck, Alfreda and Wen Fong: “The Astor Garden Court and Ming Room”. Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.
————“A Chinese Garden Court: The Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: MMA Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 3, Winter 1980-81.
Click here to continue the tour to the American Wing to see Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze.