Chinese Paintings – Modern

Zhang Daqian’s 'Tang Dynasty Lady'

By Sotheby's
In Zhang Daqian's painting 'Tang Dynasty Lady,' a young woman is reading, poring intently over a page held open in her hands. Why did the artist choose to immortalize her thus? To modern eyes, there is something familiar about her posture, the tilt of the head, and the rapt attention – more so if we were to imagine a mobile device in place of the book. In 8th century China, however, women of learning were highly unusual, so this manner of depiction suggests that the subject was no ordinary Tang dynasty lady. Indeed, she was a celebrated member of the literati and, one might say, an 'influencer' of her day.
Zhang Daqian, Tang Dynasty Lady

Xue Tao (770-832) was a well-known poet of the Tang dynasty. Her father was a government official, and she was raised as a scholar. After her father died, however, she became a courtesan in order to support her family. Despite the change in her circumstances, she continued to write hundreds of poems during her lifetime, garnering her esteem and appreciation within elite and scholarly circles. At one time, General Wei Gao proposed that the royal court appoint her as an editor. Although she never did receive that post, Xue Tao would come to be known in popular memory as the "Female Editor."

Zhang Daqian, Tang Dynasty Lady (Detail)

Xue Tao has been celebrated long after the Tang dynasty, and many of China's finest poets such as Bai Juyi have written poems dedicated to her. Zhang Daqian took these references as inspiration to portray her in this painting. Although the Tang dynasty standard of beauty favored zaftig and voluptuous women, here Zhang emphasizes the poet as a willowy and slender figure. The artist did not provide an inscription, but the graceful lines and rich mineral colors resemble the mural figures from the Dunhuang grottoes. Along with the seal ‘Ni Yan Lou’, it is suggested that this work was painted in the early 1950s.

This work comes from Zhang Daqian’s family collection and is a highlight in the exhibition Zhang Daqian: The Master at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery. The painting offers a unique re-imagining of a singular Tang dynasty female poet and offers insight on some of Zhang Daqian's influences.