Composition and brush technique are the two most important factors in traditional Chinese painting, and neither can stand on its own. Of course, painters can depict what they see with their eyes, painting in a realistic manner. But beyond that, and after carefully observing the object or scenery, they can thereupon achieve mastery through a complete study of the subject and create a realm of the ideal from the heart and mind to share with viewers. Not stopping with depicting scenery, they can even also convey their own feelings. Through dexterous skill in painting, artists can suggest a sense of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, or the emotional effects of such weather conditions as wind, rain, frost, and dew. In the history of Chinese art, the basic compositions of flower painting were divided into the four major categories of “complete scenery (全景),” “intimate scenery (小景),” “broken branch (折枝),” and “vase arrangement (瓶插).” In reality, though, each method includes various forms of expression. Whether very complex or simplified, shown in the open or concealed, all are manifestations pleasing to the eye.
Basket of Flowers (花籃)
Li Song (李嵩), Song Dynasty (960–1279)
Li Song, whose dates are unknown, was a native of Qiantang (錢塘) in Zhejiang (浙江) adopted by a Painter-in-Attendance, Li Congshun (李從順), of the Painting Academy during the Northern Song Xuanhe (宣和) reign of Emperor Huizong (徽宗, r. 1101-1126). Li Song also went on to become a Painter-in-Attendance, serving the courts of the Southern Song emperors Guangzong (光宗), Ningzong (寧宗), and Lizong (理宗), who ruled from 1190 to 1264. Li Song was good at painting figures and excelled at ruled-line painting.
This work, from “Album of Collected Paintings Through the Ages (歷代集繪冊),” depicts a rattan basket filled with camellia (山茶), narcissus (水仙), green-calyx plum blossoms (綠萼梅), daphne (瑞香), and lilacs (丁香). Using a basket instead of a vase, this is another way to express the vase arrangement of flower painting composition. With all different kinds of flowers intersecting, the brushwork here remains careful and steady, the coloring bright and rich but not fluctuating or temperamental. It thus retains an appearance of refined beauty and careful attention. There is also not the least bit stiffness in the complex detail, making this a typical example of the Song dynasty Painting Academy style.
Plum Blossoms (梅花)
Chen Xianzhang (陳憲章), whose exact dates are unknown, was from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). A native of Kuaiji (會稽) in Zhejiang (浙江), he was active during the Zhengtong (正統) reign (1436–1449) of Emperor Yingzong (英宗) and excelled at painting plum blossoms. This work depicts a branch filled with plum blossoms splitting into two directions and extending into the composition from the top. The branches have all been painted with relatively dark ink tones, with even darker ink for the moss dots. The plum blossoms are done in the circled-petal method and light ink used to fill the background silk with washes, thereby highlighting the whiteness of the petals. This painting does not emphasize the purity of the plum blossom, but rather the refined scenery of a complex construct to depict its density. The riotous profusion of petals here exudes a raucous aura of numerous blossoms competing in beauty, making this a very special compositional technique.
Auspicious Lotus (瑞蓮圖)
Li Shida (李士達, 16th–17th c.), Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
Li Shida (style name Yanghuai 仰槐) was a native of Suzhou (蘇州), Jiangsu (江蘇). He excelled at painting figures and did landscapes as well.
According to the artist’s inscription on this work, it was done in 1606 after he saw a lotus stalk with two blossoms at a friend’s home. He then playfully recorded this enchantingly beautiful scene, also considered an auspicious sign.
Although Li Shida claimed not to be very good at flower painting, the composition is still refined with both rock and lotuses standing tall. The leaves and rock complement each other, and the tall stalks of the double lotus and leaf take up two-thirds of the painting surface, appearing slim and graceful. The brushwork is pure and moist, with ink used to depict the rock in dark and light shades, which create complementary haloes revealing the exquisitely wrought surface of the ornamental lake rock. Vegetable green was used to paint the leaves and stalks with fluid running brushwork, the light and dark shades dissolving into each other to suggest front and back. The blossoms were done in the “baimiao (白描)” fine ink-line manner, adding to the sense of pure elegance. This type of atmosphere is rarely found in flower hanging scroll painting.
White Plum Blossoms (白梅)
Zhu Da (朱耷, 1626–1705) was a descendant of the Ming dynasty imperial family. A native of Nanchang (南昌) in Jiangxi, he had the sobriquet Bada Shanren (八大山人). After the fall of the Ming in 1644, he became a Buddhist monk but later converted to Daoism. Most of his paintings were done in a very expressive “sketching ideas (寫意)” manner, his bird-and-flower subjects being most outstanding. With his mature and succinct brush and ink, he personified his subjects, using symbolic methods of expression to convey meaning and thus creating an original style with which to convey his feelings.
This work, from “Album of Sketches from Life (寫生冊),” was done at the Chinese age of 34 (1659), making it a relatively early work by Zhu Da. Although the brushwork is more cautious than that of his later years, the arrangement of the scenery is quite unusual with a style of its own, fully portraying the personal and individual nature of the artist. The blank area of the painting, except for that representing the white plum blossoms, takes up more than half of the composition. In the upper right corner is the artist’s inscription, which suitably balances the composition.
A Collection of Spring Fortune (春祺集錦)
Wang Chengpei (汪承霈, ?–1805), Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)
Wang Chengpei, style name Chunnong (春農) was a native of Qiantang (錢塘) in Zhejiang (浙江) whose family originally hailed from Xiuning (休寧) in Anhui (安徽). The son of Wang Youdun (汪由敦, 1692–1758), he was a Provincial Graduate (juren 舉人) of 1747. He specialized in poetry and paleography, his calligraphy being similar to that of his father. He also excelled at painting and was gifted at all of landscape, figure, and flower subjects.
This work gathers flowers of the four seasons into a single handscroll painting, including the Japanese plum blossom (李花), plum blossom (梅花), narcissus (水仙), Chinese rose (月季), rose (玫瑰), wisteria (紫藤), hydrangea (繡球), day lily (萱花), iris (鳶尾), orchid (蘭), peony (牡丹), magnolia (辛夷), lily (百合), crab apple (海棠), jasmine (茉莉), lotus (蓮荷), chrysanthemum (菊), dahlia (天竺), camellia (茶花), osmanthus (桂花), carnation (石竹), passion flower (西蕃蓮), morning glory (牽牛花), and mallow (葵) for a total of more than forty altogether. The painting method is exquisite and realistic, being colorful but not gaudy. The work brims with rich beauty and a pure visual effect.