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  • Thumbnail for Fan with calligraphy
    Fan with calligraphy by Zhang Zao, The Lady Lang Fang

    55 lines of tiny regular script, alternating between lines with 16 characters and lines with 6 characters, altogether 610 characters, followed by a line with dedication and signature in even smaller characters. A standard source mentions a woman artist named Zhang Zao, with the pen name Lanfang, who was the wife of a man named Shen. No dates are given for her, and the two possible dates given above within the repeating 60 year cycle are in keeping with the majority of fans in this collection that date from the nineteenth century. An attribution such as this must remain tentative until additional examples of the person's work can be located. Although a number of women artists achieved some level of fame in the Qing dynasty, most were known only through the name of the man they served or to whom they were married. One can only marvel at the extraordinary levels of skill and concentration to which these hundreds of tiny characters attest. One mistake and one had to begin again. At the same time, they are far removed from qualities like freedom and expressiveness, and suggest other skills such as embroidery and weaving for which many women were famous. To be capable of such work, the woman must have had a long period of training in calligraphy, and was most probably very literate, as suggested by the meaning of her name Zao (accomplished in literature). It would be useful to find out more about her.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Landscape
    Fan painting - Landscape by Gu Yun (1835-1896)

    A round fan with a single large pine to the right, partly obscuring a complex buildings. A single figure is placed before a long table seen through the open window of tall structure at left center. A Single peak is in the left distance. Gu Yun is one of the best-documented artists in the collection, and information on his career can be found in several publications. There are five fans in this collection signed by the artist, and this provides an interesting opportunity to compare the brush manner and calligraphy of a single individual over time. While there are many precedents in the classical past for these standard elements of trees, houses, and distant mountains, the somewhat aggressive pine tree that dominates the paintings suggests some elements of the Shanghai school. The brushwork is quiet, however, and reminds one of Gu's conservative beginnings.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Wife Plum, Son Crane
    Fan painting - Wife Plum, Son Crane by Feng Ji (act. early 19th century)

    A scholar at the center leaning on the prunus tree that bends to the right, while another tree behind the first crosses back to the left. The rocks, vegetation and drapery are done with energy. This is one of the earlier artists in the group. He is recorded as living in the late Qianlong and Daoguang eras, and one other painting by him is dated 1827. He was known for calligraphy, landscapes, and figures, those of women in particular, as well as the genre of bird and flower. The painting is actually titled by inscription by the artist. This is a very satisfactory painting, well composed with the scholar at center leaning on the prunus tree that bends to the right, while another tree behind the first crosses back to the left. The scholar's gaze turns toward the stork, a standard image suggesting a departed friend; the stork in turn looks at the scholar. The rocks, vegetation and drapery are done with energy and well-honed technique. The painting almost suggests the Kano school of Japan.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Lady Reclining on a bench in a garden
    Fan painting - Lady Reclining on a bench in a garden by Xiaoyu, or the Lady Feng [?]

    Paintings of both men and women in gardens. A part of the iconography of the most images of women in the gardens is the wall, signifying that she was in a space enclosed. The identification of this woman is uncertain. Xiaoyu is taken from a seal, and the second character of the name (after Feng) is unclear, although even if it were readable there seems to be no likely woman artist with a first character Feng in her name in the dictionary. She does say that she did the work in Shanghai, and since women traveled little, this is likely where she lived. There are many paintings of both men and women in gardens. It is interesting that a part of the iconography of most images of women in gardens is the wall, signifying that she was in a space enclosed, a space that belonged to someone else, and by extension she was property within that space. Perhaps only in dreams could one escape. This work is competent, but not too impressive in either its brushwork or composition.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - women in a garden
    Fan painting - women in a garden by Quan

    Two women, one playing a qin, the other attentive, in a garden with rocks and bamboo. The painter is not identified, and is not an artist of outstanding ability. As always, the date could be an earlier number in the 60 year cycle, but 1869 seems to fit stylistically. The main subjects, the women, are painted without any knowledge of traditional techniques for depicting drapery, and the faces are non-descript. The rock formations on which the two women sit have a liquid motion that would work well in a landscape, but not so in a garden. They relate awkwardly to the plane on which the women sit. The bamboo is better handled, but lacks energy and character. The inscription begins with a seven-character quatrain, followed by the date, dedication, and signature.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Landscape
    Fan painting - Landscape by Datong

    A dense landscape with a stream on the right and the houses to the rear. On the left, two large pines overhang a pavilion in which a scholar sits, presumably writing a letter. The name of this artist does not appear in standard sources. This is a very competent, even ambitious, work. As the title suggests, the scholar in the hut is "composing a scented letter among streams and mountains." On the left, two large pines overhang a pavilion in which a scholar sits, presumably writing a letter. The dense landscape with a stream on the right and houses to the rear suggests a precedent in the Yuan dynasty masters Wang Meng or Huang Gongwang, although there is no specific clue in the inscription. This is a very good artist, and in time he will be identified.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Landscape
    Fan painting - Landscape by Zheng Shifang

    Landscape in the style of Dong Yuan. Dense piled up mountains on the right and distant vista on the left, complete with architecture and a single walking figure. The identification of the artist is based on the pen name he uses. Liutian is Zheng Shifang, a native of Licheng in Shandong province. One of the few northerners in this collection, there are many reasons why he might have been in the south, perhaps on an administrative assignment, perhaps as a clerk for a more famous official. No dates are given, or other details on his career, other than the fact he was known for landscape. That is easy to accept, and while a tentative nineteenth-century date is appropriate given his inclusion in this collection, the style of the work could easily date it to the previous century. In contrast to the style of Shen Zhaohan, this landscape painting is redolent of the classical orthodox school of the early Qing. The composition, with its dense piled-up mountains on the right and distant vista on the left, complete with architecture and a single walking figure, creates a grand world in this tiny space. The artist's erudition is emphasized by his reference to stylistic precedent in the Five Dynasties artist Dong Yuan (Dong Beiyuan), and he says he is seeking out the "hoary force of his qi." The long stringy strokes that texture the mountains also evoke this heritage.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Landscape
    Fan painting - Landscape by Wu Guxiang (1843-1903)

    The painting has an idyllic setting which recalls the classic heritage, and is close in its feeling to a published handscroll. Careful selection and placement of a few elements two trees, a single pavilion, a shoreline in distance to the right and few mountains and hills to the left. Soft pastel colors are used. Wu Guxiang is one of the best known painters of the late nineteenth century. He was well traveled. He began his career in Suzhou, then went to Yushan and Shanghai, eventually in 1892 heading far north to the capital in Beijing before returning again to Shanghai the following year. He was one of the few artists in the group who would have experienced the artistic climate in the capital, probably hearing about political intrigue and foreign oppression from acquaintances there. He was also able to profit from the study of older paintings in Beijing collections. Although he lived and worked in Shanghai, he was far more conservative than most artists in that city, which was more oriented to merchant taste than a classical style. In the South he was one of the "Nine Friends of Suzhou." Such groupings have appeared frequently in later Chinese art history: for example, there are the "Nine Friends of Painting," the "Four Wangs," the "Four lesser Wangs" and the "Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou." These names are convenient handles, but they often gloss over important dissimilarities in style and careers. For instance, not all of the "Nine Friends" were productive artists. In the two major lists compiled by Sirén and Laing (Laing's limited to the twentieth century), there are no entries for Wu Dacheng, Wu Guxiang, Jin Lan, or Ren Yu, and only one for Hu Xigui. The one work by Wu Dacheng I have seen is not impressive, and he may be included in the group simply because of his social stature. In contrast Sirén has more than a half dozen for Gu Yun, and Laing has dozens of entries for Ni Tian, Lu Hui, and Gu Linshi. Gu Yun, Gu Linshi, and Lu Hui are also given prominent exposure in the major exposition A Century in Crisis. In another important exhibition, Ni Tian, Wu Guxiang, Lu Hui, and Ren Yu appear. Gu Yun was well known in his day and went to Japan as a sort of "cultural envoy" where he taught painting to interested Japanese. He, Lu Hui, and Gu Linshi were known as conservative "revivalists" early in their careers, while Ni Tian and to a certain extent Ren Yu represented the more innovative and iconoclastic Shanghai school. The group obviously spans two generations-two generations in which great changes occurred in the social and political arenas. They all did know each other, and probably interacted on a frequent schedule. To return to Wu's fan: it is close in feeling to a published handscroll painted by him. Both recall his Suzhou heritage, wherein he follows a long line of artists who admired and imitated the great late Ming artist Wen Zhengming. The idyllic setting recalls this classical heritage, seen in the careful selection and placement of a few elements: two trees, a single pavilion, a shoreline in the distance to the right and a few mountains and hills to the left. Soft pastel colors, used with restraint, are also typical of this approach.

  • Thumbnail for Fan painting - Man reading resting on a rock
    Fan painting - Man reading resting on a rock by Ni Tian (1853-1919)

    A single figure, seated but leaning to the left and with elbows resting on a large rock, reads a book. The large rock takes up the entire center space. Ni Tian is a well-known artist and his work is seen frequently in collections and at auctions. He was one of the "Nine Friends" of Suzhou, and would have known and interacted with all of the famous painters in the south in his day. He began his studies with Wang Su (1794-1797), although there are hints at friction between the two. Some aspects of Ni Tian's character helped label him as "greasy and flippant," and his long-standing relationship with the madam of a brothel may have helped this censure. Although listed among the Suzhou artists, he spent most of his later years, from about 1890 on, in Shanghai, where he studied the style of Ren Yi, student of Ren Xun. The inscripton contains the dedication, date and signature. A single figure, seated but leaning to the left and with elbows resting on a large rock, reads a book. The large rock takes up the entire center of the composition, and the inscription at far left is balanced by the spreading branches of a tree, of which only the lower branches are visible, at right. The lower trunk of a second tree is visible at the right edge of the fan. The energetic brush and careful control of ink value are typical of Ni Tian, who was a very skilled artist technically. He lived into the twentieth century, and continued the traditions of the Shanghai school, especially the style of Ren Yi, although without much significant contribution of his own.