I t is a widely held idea that Chinese painting tends to be less concerned with representations of real-life objects or beings, and that the primary emphasis is often on harmonising abstract or literary concepts with nature. Such depictions of the natural world – landscape, rocks and water, bird and flowers –are thus favoured above genres such as portraits or figurative works on the whole. That is not to say China lacked a strong tradition of figurative painting. In fact, there had been important developments of court figure painting during the Qing dynasty— a new style that not only imported methods of perspective and modelling from the West, but also reconciled them with traditional painting techniques. The artists of figure painting who were able to distinguish themselves in Chinese art history canon are therefore even more notable given the aesthetic orientation towards landscapes and other genres.
Rare Classical Chinese Paintings That Transcend a Thousand Years
We focus the story on Leng Mei (1662-1742) who, along with Jiao Bingzhen (active 1680-1726) and Ding Guanpeng (active 1708–1771), were all pioneers of the figure painting during the Qing dynasty and contemporaries whose time at court overlapped. Each added their own variations to the stylistic foundations of those who came before them, creating their own distinctive methods. Today, very few of Jiao Bingzhen’s paintings have survived. Meanwhile, Ding Guanpeng emulated the techniques of Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766)– so much so that his own works retained little of the beauty of traditional Chinese painting. It is really with Leng Mei that we may understand the best of early Qing figure painting. He was an artist whose service to the court spanned three Qing dynasty reigns – Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong – and he was also the figure painter most admired by the Qianlong Emperor.
Leng Mei, courtesy name Jichen and sobriquet Jimen Huashi, was a native of Jiaozhou, Shandong. Based on the chronology of his work, he was already serving in the Imperial Painting Academy in 1681. He studied painting with Jiao Bingzhen, an official in the Five Offices within the Directorate of Astronomy, who was known for his figure painting. Leng also participated in large-scale projects such as The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Tour (Kangxi nanxun tu) and The Kangxi Emperor’s Sixtieth Birthday Celebration (Kangxi wanshou tu), specialising in painting palace buildings and figures. He was as well-known as Jiao Bingzhen, and he was considered the top figure painter for a time.
Sometime during the Yongzheng reign, Leng Mei seems to have disappeared from court. The historical records offer little clue as to why. The art historian Nie Chongzheng has surmised that Leng Mei had lost favour at court owing to some involvement in internal power struggles of succession. He very likely stayed in the palace of Hongli, Prince Bao of the First Rank and the future Qianlong Emperor. There he became the painter to the Prince. Another possible explanation for his absence from course during this time relates to his family responsibilities. Since his court pay and grain rations may not have been sufficient to support his large family, Leng Mei may have had to sell paintings to support himself.
When Hongli ascended the throne in 1736, Leng was quickly called back to the Imperial Painting Academy. By this point Leng Mei was of advanced years, and he was received at court with great courtesy. Consideration was given to his sons and relatives, and he received higher pay and grain rations than most painters. Leng Mei was also given several pieces of white silk, “so that he might paint as he wished,” and he was exempt from presenting drafts of his paintings for approval, a process required of court painters. He created paintings the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) for many years. It was evident that the Qianlong Emperor valued and trusted Leng Mei. Even after his death, the Records of the Imperial Workshops (Huoji dang) from 1743 reveal that several paintings without signatures would be signed “Leng Mei” by the order of the Qianlong Emperor, demonstrating the deep appreciation he held for the artist.
Leng Mei’s paintings at court mostly recorded figures and activities in the palace. Some also depicted ancient figures and stories. He was an important figure painter in court. However, only fourteen of Leng Mei’s works were recorded in The Precious Collection of the Stone Canal Pavilion (Shiqu baoji). Of those, three works are currently in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing and three works are held by the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Very few of Leng Mei’s paintings circulate in the market, so this work is certainly a treasure not to be missed.
This painting is exquisite, dated to 1713. That same year, Leng Mei had been called back to court to participate in the painting of The Kangxi Emperor’s 60th Birthday Celebration, which was the peak of his artistic career. A vivid, twisting plum tree serves as the background to this work. The red-robed scholar under the tree is shielded from the snow by a child with a parasol, while another boy holds up a plum branch he found. The technique is simple and clear. He used the traditional “three whites technique” to colour the faces of the figures, but then added shading to create dimension. The brushwork is light and unconstrained, giving off a gently refined effect. Although there is no text associated with the scholar, these details gave the Qianlong Emperor room to let fancy take flight.
"Some of the plum blossoms in the village have opened, others have not; their fragrance lingers amidst the snow. The jade-like ice has accumulated on the branches, and fine jade adorns the path ahead. Old Man Bu could endure the cold, as the beautiful women [the plum blossoms] applied new makeup. Hung on a wall, the blossoms amuse the eye, as he faces the wind that diffuses an age-old fragrance. Qianlong, autumn in the seventh month of the bingchen year."
Here, “Old Man Bu” refers to the famous poet Lin Bu (967-1028), who lived in seclusion on Gushan, near West Lake. Though his poetry was admired by emperors, he never pursued fame and fortune. He only interested himself in practicing calligraphy, reciting poems, cultivating plum trees, and raising cranes, earning him the posthumous moniker “the wife of the plum and the son of the crane.” Although the painter did not name the learned man depicted in the painting, the Qianlong Emperor thought of an allusion to Lin Bu, which shows his understanding of Han culture.
This painting was recorded in The Precious Collection of the Stone Canal Pavilion (Series One). After the piece was admired by the Emperors Qianlong and Jiaqing, several seals were added: “Treasure Personally Appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor” (Qianlong yulan zhi bao), “Collected Treasures of the Stony Moat,” “Treasure Authenticated and Collected in the Hall of Mental Cultivation” (Yangxin dianjian cangbao), and “Treasure Personally Appreciated by the Jiaqing Emperor” (Jiaqing yulan zhi bao). For reference, the seal for “Treasure Personally Appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor” (Lot 3801) is being offered at A Journey Through China’s History The Dr Wou Kiuan Collection. The “Record of the Books and Paintings of the Hall of Jubilant Uprightness” (Leshantang tushu ji) seal in the lower right corner is related to the Hall of Jubilant Uprightness (Leshantang). This Hall served as the Qianlong Emperor’s study in his youth, initially located in the peach blossom grove in the Old Summer Palace. Later, when the Yongzheng Emperor ascended the throne, Qianlong moved with his father into the Forbidden City, where he studied in the Hall of Jubilant Uprightness in the Hall of Esteem. There, the future Qianlong Emperor would study and write. Thus, this seal implies that Hongli collected the work very soon after it was completed, which supports Nie Chongzheng’s theory.