Handscroll paintings, painted horizontally on pieces of silk or sheets of paper and mounted as scrolls, are a major type of traditional East Asian painting, distinctive in their format and method of viewing. Their creation is based on special principles that differ from those of painting single-framed pictures as they are continuous pictures that progress in space and time. Handscroll paintings are meant to be handled as well as seen–unrolled for viewing and rolled up for storage. Viewing section by section calls for particular kinds of engagement or participation on the part of the viewer moving forward (from right to left) stopping and going back. In addition to painted images, the scrolls often include handwritten text, artists’ signatures and seals, and the seals of later owners of the painting. The texts might include narrative and descriptive passages on the painting itself and colophons added at the end, including comments by of the painters’ associates and later viewers, including owners of the paintings. These can provide a social history of the painting.

Because of the rare and fragile nature of these paintings, however, they are rarely shown. They cannot be handled by the public or exposed to light for extended periods in exhibitions. Therefore our center created this interactive site to simulate the experience of viewing handscrolls in ways that published photographs in books and projected slides cannot and to make them more widely accessible for teaching and research.


The Center for the Art of East Asia initiated the Digital Scrolling Paintings Project to support the teaching of classes on East Asian painting. The temporal and spatial qualities of handscroll paintings are lost in photographs of selected sections that are reproduced in books and projected in the classroom.  Although used widely in current art education and the study of these works of art, such reproductions seriously distort the nature of handscrolls by erasing their sequential anad participatory viewing process. The display of these paintings in long cases in museums also is not the way in which these paintings were made to be experienced. With the assistance of Humanities Computing, the Center developed a prototype for digital scrolling technology as an exciting tool to simulate the viewing experience and to improve understanding of handscroll paintings. The scrolling paintings website has been designed with interactive elements to allow unprecedented accessibility to the complete works of art for educators, students and researchers.

The Scrolling Paintings website has a public-access portion that includes works of art by agreements with collaborating institutions. These include the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Smart Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the University of Chicago Library. We are continuing to build the website with additional paintings and hope to collaborate with other museums to include paintings held in their collections.


The website integrates various useful capabilities for searching and viewing the scrolls. The Scroll Archive can be searched by Title, Artist,Historical Period, and Museum Collection. These include scrolling to left and right, zooming in and out and movement up, down and side to side. There is a small image of the scroll on the upper left with a frame that shows the position of the current view of the scroll relative to the whole. In addition “hotspots” have been added to some examples  to provide points of focus that bring up details of the painting and information in separate windows that open. They include elements of interest, the signature of the artist, seals, and inscriptions. Further additions of text annotations and links to related material are also possible. The digitals scrolls can be viewed by individuals on a computer monitor or projected on a larger screen in classrooms and lecture halls. Paintings can be viewed one above the other on the same screen for comparison. The accessibility to these works for viewing and interaction has great potential for adding or linking to a large body of related information and visual material inscriptions. The digital technology is an invaluable tool for education, research, archiving and conservation.


Granting Agencies

Blakemore Foundation
George Walsh Award, Division of Humanities
The University of Chicago Provost’s Program for Academic Technology Innovation
The University of Chicago Women's Board

Image-Contributing Institutions

Art Institute of Chicago
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nelson-Atkins Museum
Smart Museum of Art
St. Louis Art Museum

Other Collaborating Museums

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Palace Museum, Beijing



Professor Wu Hung — Art History Department, University of Chicago
Katherine R. Tsiang — Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago
Amanda Rybin — Visual Resources Center, University of Chicago

Faculty Collaborators

Ping Foong — Art History Department, University of Chicago
Chelsea Foxwell — Art History Department, University of Chicago
Hans Thomsen — Kunsthistorisches Institut, Zurich

Website Development

Eli Thorkelson — Humanities Computing, University of Chicago
Peter Thorson — Humanities Computing, University of Chicago