Spring Morning in the Han Palace

Tags: Ming dynasty | National Palace Museum | painting


Ch'iu Ying (ca. 1494-1552), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Handscroll, ink and colors on silk, 30.6 x 574.1 cm 
Ch'iu Ying (style name Shih-fu), a native of T'ai-ts'ang in Kiangsu, was born into a poor family. Moving with his family to Soochow, Ch'iu was apprenticed as a lacquer artisan. He later learned the art of painting from Chou Ch'en (ca. 1450-1535) and imitated ancient works of T'ang (618-907) and Sung (960-1279) dynasties, becoming so successful that his copies and the originals were indistinguishable. In addition, due to his frequent associations with literati, his fame rose to the point that later generations ranked him along with the scholar-artists Shen Chou (1427-1509), Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559), and T'ang Yin (ca. 1470-1523) as one of the Four Great Masters of the Ming. Ch'iu Ying's use of the brush was meticulous and refined, and his depictions of landscapes and figures were orderly and well-proportioned. In addition to his paintings being elegant and refined, they also are quite decorative.

This long handscroll work is an imaginary representation of various activities in a Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) palace on a spring morning. Among them is the famous story of Mao Yen-shou painting the portrait of Wang Chao-chun. As the story goes, the concubines of Emperor Yüan-ti (r. 48-33 BC) were so numerous that he ordered the artist Mao Yen-shou to paint their portraits in order to choose them for attendance. Except for the righteous Wang Chao-chün, all the concubines bribed the artist to portray them even more beautiful. For not receiving a bribe, the artist portrayed Wang less beautiful, ruining her chances of seeing the emperor. One day, when a barbarian chieftain came to the court seeking relations, he sought a Han beauty as his wife. The emperor, believing Wang Chao-chün to be the least attractive of the concubines, chose her as the chieftain's wife. Only when he saw her did he realize that she was the most beautiful of them all. Infuriated, he had the artist executed.

This work with an intricate composition leading from right to left is rendered with crisp brushwork and beautiful colors. Trees and decorative rocks decorate and punctuate the garden scenery of the lavish palace architecture. In addition to groups of beauties, some of them are shown in leisure activities associated with the literati, such as enjoying the zither, chess, calligraphy, and painting as well as appreciating antiquities and flowers. This masterpiece of semi-historical painting by Ch'iu Ying was done for the famous collector Hsiang Yüan-pien and completed sometime after 1542.

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum