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Sonja Kelley
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Chen Hongshou was skilled in multiple art forms, including painting, calligraphy, seal carving, and designing Yixing teapots. As a magistrate of the area in which Yixing-ware is made, he contributed to the success of that ceramic form by both designing pots and providing official support. His paintings, while not as popular as the teapots and seals he created, attest to Chen’s skill at composition, free use of color—especially wet boneless washes—and his command of the brush.

The majority of his paintings depict flowers.Liu Yiwen, "Paintings and Calligraphy of Chen Hongshou," in The Art of Chen Hongshou: Painting, Calligraphy, Seal-carving and Teapot-design, trans. Chan Kuen On (Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hong Kong: Shanghai Museum, Nanjing Museum and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2005): 19. Given to the Seattle Art Museum in 2008 by Thomas and Patricia Ebrey, who are both professors at the University of Washington, this album features twelve different flowers and plants: Leaf 1: peony, Leaf 2: orchid, Leaf 3: hibiscus, Leaf 4: loquat, Leaf 5: lotus and cassia, Leaf 6: pomegranate, Leaf 7: willow, Leaf 8: chrysanthemum, Leaf 9: pine, Leaf 10: bamboo, Leaf 11: flowering plum and Leaf 12: narcissus.

Using a free, expressive style (xieyi 寫意), he paints in delicate, light colored, often boneless, washes. In many of the leaves, when the colored washes are fresh and wet, Chen Hongshou adds a few swift strokes of ink, the black ink often bleeding into, mixing with, and enhancing the colors. His use of brush and ink is economical and confident. Two leaves are distinctive: the bamboo executed entirely in red wash and the flowering plum solely in ink. The last painting has a pale blue-washed ground which sets off the narcissus in reserve. Here the rich black edges of the rock are framed by the vegetation below, while above a branch with red berries extends toward the inscription on the right. Throughout, the Seattle album attests to Chen's painterly skill.

This album is similar to three albums by Chen Hongshou which are dated 1810, 1812, and 1817, all in the collection of the Shanghai Museum.Illustrated in The Art of Chen Hongshou: Painting, Calligraphy, Seal-carving and Teapot-design, (Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hong Kong: Shanghai Museum, Nanjing Museum and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2005), cat. P5, P6, and P7. Like the Seattle album, the Shanghai albums are close-up views of flowers, plants and trees freely done in pale colors. In the depictions of pines trees in the Shanghai albums dated 1812 and 1817 and in the Seattle album, the pine needles are rendered by crisscrossing straight lines of blue and brown. The bamboo in the Seattle album is executed in red ink; the 1812 album at the Shanghai Museum has a stalk of bamboo painted with orange-brown ink. The similarities of these albums suggest that the Seattle album was probably done in the same period, i.e. circa 1810s, and can be considered his late work.

In all four albums, Chen generously uses the “boneless” style, creating shapes in pure colored washes without outlines. By using this technique, he is working in a tradition of flower painting that was popularized by Yun Shouping 惲壽平 (1633–1690) in the early Qing Dynasty. However, when citing artists who influenced his work in the inscriptions on his paintings, Chen lists various artists, including not only Shen Zhou沈周 (1427–1509), but also Chen Kuo 陳栝(16th century) and Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593), who were also influenced by Shen Zhou.Liu Yiwen: 21-22. Chen Kuo and Xu Wei were 16th-century bird-and-flower painters who created engaging compositions of flowers and plants in a free xieyi style. Xu Wei is best known for his wet splashed-ink technique.Yang Xin, "The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)," in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (New Haven and Beijing: Yale University Press and Foreign Languages Press, 1997): 227-232. However, since the ink in Chen Hongshou’s flower paintings is never so wet that it pools—as it does in Xu Wei’s work—his style is more closely allied with that of Chen Kuo.

Chen Hongshou's flower paintings of the early nineteenth century also are of interest because they anticipate, or set the stage for, flower paintings produced later in the nineteenth century by Shanghai school artists. Known for working in strong color and employing swift broad strokes, the Shanghai school painters created works of art which would sell well on the art market. In contrast, their predecessor Chen Hongshou could rely on his income as a government official, so he was not as subject to the vagaries of the market, but the paintings he produced drew on the same painting conventions that were later mined by professional artists to appeal to a wide audience.

© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum


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