Zhang Daqian: 20 Facts About the Most Popular Chinese Painting Master

Zhang Daqian: 20 Facts About the Most Popular Chinese Painting Master

1. Zhang Daqian is one of the best-selling painters at auction

Zhang Daqian is amongst the most popular Chinese painters – one who has repeatedly achieved exceptional results in the auction market. Most of the records for the artist had previously been set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. At Sotheby’s sale room in 2016, Peach Blossom Spring reappeared in the market after 34 years, subsequently commanded HK$280 million, setting a new auction record for Zhang Daqian; the painting is currently the second-highest priced work ever sold at auction by the artist. In the autumn of 2021, Mist at Dawn from the MK Lau Collection realised HK$210 million, ranking fourth in highest price for Zhang Daqian's works sold at auction. In 2022, his Landscape after Wang Ximeng soared to HK$370 million, not only shattering the auction record of the artist, but also setting the bar as the top price ever achieved for a Chinese painting and calligraphy work at Sotheby's.

ZHANG DAQIAN,  LANDSCAPE AFTER WANG XIMENG . LOT SOLD FOR 370,495,000 HKD, setting world record for the artist
2. Zhang Daqian’s star rose at an early age and continued to soar throughout the decades

Zhang Daqian began painting since the 1920s with an artistic career lasting more than 60 years. On the heels of his solo exhibition in Nanjing in 1927, his fame quickly followed in Shanghai. In 1934, he held his first painting exhibition in Beiping (Beijing) to an all sold-out show, which propelled the artist into public limelight in China. From then onwards, every exhibition anywhere of Zhang Daqian would as a matter of course spark excitement and attract a seemingly endless stream of visitors. Appetite for his works grew and, when they became available on the market they would be snapped up. The demand for Zhang Daqian continues to this day, and his paintings are still setting new highs at auction.

ZHANG DAQIAN, MIST AT DAWN , 1968. LOT SOLD FOR 214,631,000 HKD in 2021 October. Its value has multipled by more than 100 times in 30 years, compared to its sold price of 2.1 million HKD in 1991 at sothebys Hong Kong.

3. Zhang Daqian was famous for his iconic long beard

Zhang Daqian had kept his remarkable beard since age 26. The beard extended chest length and had been an iconic trait of the artist. He donned traditional Chinese clothes, and was typically seen in a long robe with a pair of cloth shoes while sporting an unusual wooden cane. His well-known image remained unchanged for many years.

4. Of all Chinese artists, Zhang Daqian may have painted the most self-portraits in the modern period

Zhang Daqian, Self Portrait, 1928.

Zhang Daqian loved self-portraits and probably created more self-portraits than any other painters of the same period. His earliest self-portrait can be traced back to the age of 28, and since then he spent a lifetime creating self-portraits. When observing the entire span of these portraitures, his appearance had changed over time – his dark hair and temples gradually becoming white, and his youthful demeanor becoming more sage. Zhang Daqian would also portray himself as a scholar in landscape paintings or alongside pines and flowers.

Zhang Daqian and his self-portrait, taken in 1959. (source: Sichuan Center for Zhang Daqian Studies)
5. Zhang Daqian had excellent mnemonic and imitation skills and could recite literary classics and poems at leisure

Since 1919, Zhang Daqian studied calligraphy with Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing. Influenced by both of his teachers, Zhang Daqian became interested in the works of Shi Tao and Bada Shanren. He would begin by imitating works of these two masters through many iterations, and later his focus would further extend to more ancient masters of the past dynasties. With his exceptional memory and imitation skills, Zhang Daqian had mastered the techniques and characteristics of various schools of Chinese paintings. In some remarkable accounts of friends, he was able to recite the poem inscribed on a painting he saw more than 50 years earlier and could even quote a telegram word for word 40 years after his friend sent it.

Zhang Daqian and the lama thangka painters at Mogao Grottoes, 1943.
6. Zhang Daqian worked hard and travelled long distances to study ancient murals in Dunhuang

In the early 1940s, Zhang Daqian stayed in the Northwest for the express purpose of studying and imitating grotto art at Dunhang. Despite the extreme weather conditions and remote geography, he continued on for three years. The famous murals are situated in caves that are narrow, affording scant light and very limited space for him to work. Overcoming such hardships, he documented and created more than 200 pieces of murals in three years, capturing the essence of ancient art in Dunhuang while also bringing this abandoned site back to public attention. His sojourn had a profound impact on his painting style, especially in his figure paintings.

7. From copying the ancients to splashing ink-and-colour, Zhang Daqian had challenged himself throughout his life

Zhang Daqian was extremely talented, capable of juggling various subjects, from flowers and birds to figures and landscapes. His artistic style evolved dramatically throughout his career, which tends to be rare amongst modern Chinese painters. He started by imitating the ancients, from Wang Meng, Jianjiang, Shitao, Bada, etc. across Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, to the murals of the Northern Wei dynasty and Tang dynasty in Dunhuang, and then traced back to Dong Yuan and Juran of the Five Dynasties. In his early years, his style was mostly expressive xieyi brushwork, and by 1950, he had reached the pinnacle of meticulous gongbi technique. After Zhang Daqian moved to North and South America, he was determined to make his mark on the Western art world. However, his eye disease in 1957 prompted him to reintroduce a unique technique of splashing ink and colour, interpreting the charm of traditional Chinese paintings with a hint of abstract or semi-abstract style often seen in Western modern art.

8. Zhang Daqian was not tall in physical stature, but his paintings towered larger than life

Zhang Daqian's creation is not limited by his diminutive height; he often infused works of large-scale compositions with great energy. In 1961, Zhang Daqian created Giant Lotuses, an enormous painting measuring 3.6 metres high and more than 6 metres wide, spanning across six screens for his special exhibition at Musee Cernuschi, Paris. In his later years, he was still creating large-scale paintings despite his weakened physical condition, including Peach Blossom Spring of 1982, which stands taller than 2 metres with bursting exuberance.

Zhang Daqian and the “Giant Lotuses”, taken at his studio at Bade Garden of Brazil.
(Source: The World of Chang Dai-chien, written by Fu Shen, Shi Jr Tang Press Co. Ltd., Taipei, September 1998, p. 105, photographed by Wang Zhiyi)
9. Zhang Daqian was very particular about his painting tools, paper, and mounting materials

Zhang Daqian was very attentive to the materials he used for painting, and often spent vast sums to buy antique paper and ink. The artist was known to purchase materials previously used at the imperial palace. Furthermore, he would invite famous craftsmen to produce papers with texture and elements following the ripped paper of Song dynasty, and added “Dafengtang” watermark on them. He also collected hair from the ears of cattle in order to make brushes as gifts for his friends. When it comes to his cherished works, he often carefully mounted the scrolls with Japanese woven cotton with tailor-made cloisonné knob, and thus placed the paintings in a dedicated Japanese wooden box.

Zhang Daqian , White Lotus , 1962. Lot sold for 5,292,000 HKD
10. Zhang Daqian was extravagant, often buying famous paintings and keeping rare exotic pets

Zhang Daqian was known for his extreme open-handedness, especially when it came to important paintings. In 1946, upon coming across Dong Yuan’s Xiao and Xiang Rivers and Gu Hongzhong’s The Night Revels of Han Xizai that was once in the imperial collection, Zhang Daqian spared no effort in purchasing these two works with the funds he initially planned to purchase a mansion.

Zhang Daqian was also fond of animals and spent lavishly in keeping different kinds of exotic species such as apes, leopards, bears, squirrels, deer, and horses as well as the more conventional pets of dogs and cats. He enjoyed their accompany and they would become motifs for his works. Zhang Daqian so adored “Black Tiger”, a Tibetan mastiff that he raised in Dunhuang, that he spent six boxes of glasses to transport his four-legged companion to Chengdu.

11. Zhang Daqian was not only an epicure, but also a great chef

Zhang Daqian took great pleasure at cooking.

Zhang Daqian took great pleasure in great food and became a dab hand at cooking. When he hosted dinner parties for friends at home, he would prepare and write down the menus. These menus were given as souvenirs to guests, including the eminent scholar Gu Yuxiu. These keepsakes demonstrate the artist’s tastes in food, such as his love for the dish, liuyisi (slices of six kinds of vegetables and ham), and the menus in turn became highly sought-after by collectors. He also took pride in the beef noodles he cooked, and this is evident in this painting dedicated to Jiang Zhaoshen.

Zhang Daqian, Landscape, splashed ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll, 1981.
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Fine Chinese Paintings, April 2010, Lot 733. Lot sold for 21,940,000 HKD
12. Zhang Daqian treated people with sincerity and often gifted paintings to friends

Known for his generosity and kindness, Zhang Daqian once said, “exceptional paintings of mine will only be bestowed upon my friends”. He spared no effort in creating masterpieces for friends such as Li Zuhan and family, Zhang Qun, Zhang Muhan, Zhang Xueliang, Zhuang Yan, Xiong Shiyi, Shen Weichuang, Gao Lingmei, not only to celebrate their birthdays or festivals, but also to promote his friends’ careers or support their pecuniary needs.

ZHANG DAQIAN, Manchurian Mountains , 1969. Lot sold for 162,665,000 HKD
13. Zhang Daqian was a bon vivant with a diverse circle of friends

With a sociable personality and penchant for self-promotion, Zhang Daqian cultivated close ties with journalists and writers, such as Huang Tiancai of the Central News Agency, Gong Xuanwu of Central Daily News, Zheng Defen of The Kung Sheung Daily News, and notable journalist Le Shuren, he often gifted them with paintings. These friends would write articles to promote Zhang Daqian’s art in return. Zhang Daqian also often sent paintings as tokens of gratitude for those who had helped him, including many doctors who had treated him, such as the famous opthalmologist Lu Runzhi or his son-in-law Fei Zibin, who cured Zhang Daqian's abdominal pain with one dose of medicine. There was also the prominent Chinese doctor Chen Yangwu who cured the artist’s rheumatism and gallstones.

14. Zhang Daqian had many disciples in Dafengtang

Zhang Daqian, Verdant Mountains in Sichuan , 1948. Lot sold for 35,480,000 HKD

From the mid-1920s, Zhang Daqian and the artist Zhang Shanzi founded their studio "Dafengtang" and began taking on a number of apprentices, who were thus called "The Disciples of Dafengtang". By 1983, Zhang Daqian alone had more than 100 students at home and abroad, including many talented and well-known painters, such as He Haixia, Hu Ruosi, Tian Shiguang, Liu Lishang who were taught by Daqian during his time in mainland, Kuang Zhongying, who followed Zhang after he moved to Taiwan, and Sun Yunsheng, who has stayed by the artist’s side for a long time.

There were also his female disciples, such as Fang Zhaoling, who garnered fame for her artistry, and Ye Mingpei, who was a talent at guqin (zither). In the winter of 1945, social circles were abuzz when Zhang Daqian took as apprentices all five sisters of the eminent Yu Family of Shanghai.

Verdant Mountains in Sichuan was painted during the artist’s visit to Mount Qingcheng in the company of Xu Wenbo, his wife, and Ye Mingpei in 1948. It sold for HK$35.5 million in April 2016.

15. In his sojourns all over the world, Zhang Daqian would often bestow Chinese names to special places

After he leaving mainland China in 1949, Zhang Daqian led a peripatetic artistic life travelling from Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and India – to the Americas and continental Europe. He had settled at residences in Brazil, California, and then Taipei in the latter half of his life. In order to ease his homesickness, Zhang Daqian would bestow alternate Chinese names upon his expatriate homes. For instance, Sao Paulo would become “Sanba”, the ancient name of his hometown, Sichuan, while Mogi das Cruzes became “Mojie”, a transliteration of famous poet, Wang Wei’s courtesy name.

Created in 1966, Misty Gorges came from Zhang Daqian's time in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He renamed Itu, the small town near Sao Paulo to ‘Yidu’, which was pronounced similarly to Yidu County of Shandong. This work was offered to the market in April 2016 and was sold for HK$34.4 million.

Zhang daqian, misty gorges , 1966. Lot sold for 34,360,000 HKD

16. Zhang Daqian regarded garden-landscaping as a form of artistic creation and often sought inspiration from the gardens he designed

Zhang Daqian was keen on creating an ideal living environment wherever he moved. The Bade Garden in Brazil, Huanbi’an of California, and The Abode of Illusion of Taipei epitomised his determination to transform sweeping acres of land into traditional Chinese gardens regardless of cost and effort. Having planted more than 3,000 persimmon trees in Bade Garden, Zhang Daqian also made sure the place was abundant with flowers, trees and animals originating from all over the world. Zhang Daqian even excavated the site to construct a lake and to build miniature mountains and a peninsula. In 1971, when Zhang Daqian moved to the Monterey Peninsula at Pebble Beach, California, he built for himself a Chinese garden in the backyard. Meanwhile, The Abode of Illusion of Taipei was a proud three-dimensional creation of the artist, with a blend of covered corridors, pavilions, bridges and natural elements of flowing water and rare plants. Immersed in these self-created gardens of paradise, Zhang Daqian had created countless masterpieces.

Zhang Daqian's Peach Blossom Spring on exhibition.

Zhang Daqian’s masterpiece, Peach Blossom Spring was inspired by the plum blossoms of the Abode of Illusions. In April 2016, it was sold for HK$27.7 million, setting a stratospheric record for Zhang Daqian's works. To this day, it remains the most expensive splashed work created by the artist. It was only until April 2022 that this record was broken by Landscape after Wang Ximeng.

17. Sichuan held a special place in Zhang Daqian’s heart

Zhang Daqian was born in Neijiang, Sichuan. A place full of fond memories for the artist, Sichuan remained an important and integral part of his life in whatever corner of the world he had been. He painted the landscapes of Sichuan passionately, creating masterpieces including Verdant Mountains in Sichuan, Sichuanese Mountains, Panorama of Qingcheng, some of his most defining artworks encapsulating his mastery in landscape painting. When abroad, he was always accompanied by his fellow Sichuanese friends. When hosting dinner parties, he would always cook Sichuanese dishes for his guests and introduce his hometown cuisine to foreign friends.

ZHANG DAQIAN, Quiet Autumn on a Sichuan River . Lot sold for 36,675,000 HKD

18. Zhang Daqian made lifelong friends around the world

A gentleman with affable and charming personalities, Zhang Daqian connected with people as he travelled around the world. While he received help from friends on exhibitions and travel arrangements, he was a loyal friend who would reciprocate when others were in need. Always on the move and far from his home country, he maintained ties of friendship by constant correspondence. As such, he fostered lasting friendships with many people, including politicians Zhang Qun, Zhang Muhan, and photographer Kao Ling-mei, who received some of his most important works as tokens of friendship throughout their lives.

Lotus and Mandarin Ducks , painted by Zhang Daqian for Kao Ling-mei. Lot sold for 191,060,000 HKD at “The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien” auction in May 2011 at Sothebys, setting the record for the artist.
19. Zhang Daqian was a family man devoted to his children’s education

Zhang was a loving and supportive father. When he was away from home, he would keep in touch with his many children by sending letters and postcards. He did not pressure them into following his chosen path; rather, he inspired them to develop their own interests. He was a role model and encouraged diligence, humility, inquisitiveness, and fortitude. He managed to bring some of his children overseas and in their expatriate life together, he taught them to treasure their cultural roots, imparting to them the Chinese language and literature, as well as an innate understanding of traditional rituals and filial piety.

On Route Switzerland-Austria , artist’s gift to his sixth son Chang Sing Chen. Lot sold for 45,728,000 HKD in October 2020 at Sotheby’s.
20. Zhang Daqian had four wives as well as many notable romantic partners

Zhang Daqian and Chi Chunhong.

Zhang Daqian was initially engaged to his cousin Xie Shunhua who befell an untimely death. After marrying Zeng Zhengrong under his mother’s arrangement, he tied the knot again two years later with Huang Ningsu, his second wife who bore him eight children. In 1935, Zhang wedded his third wife Yang Wanjun, a famous opera singer in Beijing. In 1947, the artist married Hsu Wenpo, the classmate of his daughter Chang Xinrui who became his fourth and last wife. As an artist leading a peripatetic life, he also had romances with women around the world – the most well-known being Shanghai socialite Li Qiujun. Also widely known are his romantic relationships with Chi Chunhong, the kisaeng whom Zhang fell in love with in Korea in 1927, and Yama Kimiko, Zhang’s caregiver in Japan when he was travelling there in the early 1950s. It is not surprising that these women were often fondly depicted in his paintings.

Spring Clouds Amidst Autumn Landscape , painted by the artist for Li Qiujun to jointly celebrate their 50th birthday in 1948. Lot sold for 35,480,000 HKD in October 2016 at Sotheby’s.

Chinese Paintings – Modern

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