Mapping Calligraphic Seals

Traditional Chinese calligraphy paintings generally take two forms, one pictorial, the other textual. Both were drawn with ink on paper or silk by skilled literati or court artists who valued expressiveness, connoisseurship, collecting, and literary dialogue between masters of the past and present. This “dialogue” between artists, collectors, and masters took the form of colophons and seal inscriptions. If an artist or collector was allowed viewership of these privately owned and coveted works of art in common “viewing parties,” and they appreciated the work, then they were likely to do one or both of the following: stamp the work with their seal inscription (a type of personal signature of sorts), or write a colophon inscription describing through prose or poetry how the work appeals to their sensibilities. This practice was so widespread and popular that nearly all traditional calligraphy paintings include numerous inscriptions and colophons (sometimes resulting in the exigency of tacing on additional paper to the painting or scroll).

Shown below is a typical example of that literary dialogue. It is a work by Emperor Huizong from the 12th century. He was only responsible for painting the birds and stamping his gigantic seals on the scroll. Every other different red seal and the accompanying calligraphy texts were from different hands. By collecting the information available on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website ( it would be fairly easy to start a database of who was allowed access to these art works and who felt compelled to approve of it in the form of colophons or seal inscriptions.

There is enough scholarship on individual art works to collect and categorize the known masters, artists, and collectors who not only saw, but left their impression on calligraphy paintings and scrolls. It is widely accepted that many of these works made the rounds in intellectual and artistic circles, creating pockets of influence wherever they landed. I am interested in how that pocket of influence traveled throughout Chinese history, and who were the individuals both seeing, inscribing, and stamping all of these works.

My data visualization would likely take the form of circles or bars of interest by individual “stampers” throughout history – their data point would grow larger based on how many works bear their mark or inscription. I would align these data points along a timeline, which would have two sides, one for paintings, the other for purely calligraphic works. Color would differentiate between status of individuals (literati, professional artist, court artist, collector, owner, creator, politician, emperor, etc.), and bubbles could have multiple colors if the person lived under multiple identities. There is currently no hard data on the differing reception each type of work received in these pockets of intellectualism, besides the correlations made within confined time periods. I would be looking at the entire history of Chinese calligraphy and how connoisseurship shaped reception and proliferation of particular art works, collectors, and artistic trends or styles. By tracking inscriptions and seals, utilizing information already gathered and published by reputable institutions, I will be able to easily track how patterns of ownership and appreciation flowed throughout history. When were paintings more popular than calligraphy? Who were the most prolific inscribers? Did more art collectors stamp works of art than artists themselves? These and many other questions could be answered through this research.

Below are just two examples of how my visualization could take shape. (Please look at them with a discerning interpretive eye, as I am only using them as inspiration to explain what words cannot do fully.)

I like this one for the bubble effect:

This is a cool way of amassing a lot of data into one chart, with lots of varying sizes for bubbles:

*This was my initial project proposal for my Digital Art History class at PSU, posted Feb. 7th, 2017


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