“I saw a picture showing great natural simplicity.”

Bamboo rankled Qi Baishi. Or so it seemed. It’s been noted with surprise the foremost contemporary Chinese artist didn’t paint the plant very well—despite the originality and the confidence his calligraphy showed. Nevertheless Qi Baishi imbued all his images with vigor and lyricism. And over his lifetime, 1864-1957, it is said he painted more than ten thousand watercolors, putting his own spin on subjects familiar to Chinese art, chrysanthemums and plums, birds and fish. He painted them repeatedly—boldly colorful in a simple composition that had not been seen previously; shrimps and crabs were his other favorite subjects, frequently “dashed off” to pay his bills.

His path to ‘major master’ was a wending one, rooted in a humble start. One of nine children of a peasant couple in the Hunan province, Qi Baishi was a sickly child. With less than a year of education due to illness and no formal training in art. The Qing Dynasty painting manual The Mustard Seed Garden, which he copied over and over, was the initial source of his creative expression. His journey took him from carpentry to wood and seal carving to painting family portraits and figures from the local operas. However he wouldn’t find his artistic footing until he was in his late fifties and moved to Beijing. Under the guidance of painter-critic-teacher Chen Hengke (or Chen Shizeng), was able to turn his talent from craft to fine art.

“Throughout his life Qi Baishi was inspired by objects of everyday existence, particularly…living creatures that he observed as a boy.”[1]  Including surely the mouse.

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, The New Traditionalist, Qi Baishi.

Additional sources: Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China; Michael Bristow, “China auction sees Qi Baishi painting sell for $65m[illion],” BBC News, May 23, 2011.

(image Mouse and Lamp reproduced for non-commercial use only)

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