A contemporary of Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636), Chen Jiru's 陳繼儒 (1558–1639) achievements are much like Dong's. While these two fellow townsmen were good friends, Chen chose to lead a modest life outside of officialdom. A virtuoso in writing poems, essays, and aphorisms, Chen was also known in artistic circles as a highly accomplished calligrapher and painter. This handscroll, Poems on Plum Blossoms, once in Nan-p'ing Wong’s collection and now a part of the Seattle Art Museum, attests to Chen’s talent for painting, calligraphy and poetry, traditionally referred to as the Three Perfections.
Signed at the very end of the scroll but undated, this work opens with a few branches of flowering plum placed in the center of a single sheet of paper. Chen Jiru worked in quick brushstrokes with little elaboration, using pale, wet ink with dark accents. The branches and blossoms confirm comments that in his paintings Chen often, as one critic says, “brushes casually and quickly, creating strokes that look old yet forceful, elegant and also graceful. 涉筆草草，蒼老秀逸”Xu Qin 徐沁, Ming hualu 明畫錄, 4.8a, vol. 1065 of Xuxiu Siku quanshu 續修四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2002): 666. See also the comment by another Qing critic Qin Zuyong 秦祖永 in his Tongyin lunhua erbian 桐陰論畫二編1.1a, vol. 1085 of Xuxiu Siku quanshu: 341. To emphasize the blossoms as much as possible, Chen places the trunk of the plum tree near the bottom edge of the paper.
What this composition provides the viewer is a few branches, thick and thin, reaching upward and outward, sparsely populated with blossoms. The branches and flowers are economically painted without much detail. Indeed, the branches are executed quickly in light ink with darker touches here and there. On the other hand, the brushwork in the petals and sepals of the flowers is more deliberate, with delicate and lively details painted in dark black ink.
Following the painting, Chen wrote four poems on the flowering plum, his calligraphy complementing his painting. While the poems about plum flowers may be appreciated for their content,All four poems are in the form of qijue, a specific poetic composition consisting of four lines in total with seven words in each line. The poems share the same topic about human joy and enjoyment before plum flowers. what attracts and is worth our attention is the clearly-written calligraphy. If Chen, the painter, chose to use mostly pale ink for his branches and flowers, Chen, the calligrapher, now chooses rich, dark ink to write his poems. Writing in a combination of running and cursive scripts, sometimes referred to as running-cursive, he pushes every stroke of his brush to the fullest. In contrast to Chen's summary and rather mysterious painting of branches and blossoms, when he turns to writing the four poems, hardly a brushstroke is not carefully made, nor an intersection of strokes hastily placed.
An ardent admirer of Su Shi’s 蘇軾 (1037–1101) calligraphy, Chen wrote the poems, emulating his style, particularly the famous inscription by Su Shi known as Huangzhou Hanshi shi tie黃州寒食詩帖or “Inscription of Huangzhou Cold Food Festival Poems.”It is a critical consensus that Chen’s calligraphy bears influence from both Su Shi and Mi Fu 米黻 (1051–1107). See Qin Zuyong, Tongyin lunhua er bian, 1.1b, vol. 1068 of Xuxiu Siku: 341. Like Su Shi's calligraphy, Chen’s strokes tend to be fat rather than slender, and the movement of the brush, slow rather than swift. This pace corresponds to the way the poems most often are written in a horizontal scroll. Chen leaves ample space between the vertical columns, a practice that recalls Dong Qichang’s calligraphic style. The generous spacing and thoughtful pacing prolongs the viewer's enjoyment, lengthening the time needed to read the poems which subtly remind us to take pleasure in the fleeting beauty of life.
© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum
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A contemporary of Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555–1636), Chen Jiru's 陳繼儒 (1558–1639) achievements are much like Dong's. While these two fellow townsmen were good friends, Chen chose to lead a modest life outside of officialdom.