Catherine PAGANI

In his masterful paintings of galloping horses, Xu Beihong used principles of foreshortening introduced from Western art. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Xu Beihong was an important figure in introducing Western ideas to modern Chinese painting. He trained and exhibited in Europe, and held important teaching posts in China. Xu’s work combined traditional Chinese heroic subjects with Western realism. He is best known for his monochrome ink paintings of galloping horses, which integrated Chinese brushwork with Western foreshortening and realism.

Xu Beihong was one of the most important figures in the introduction of Western ideas to Chinese painting in the first half of the twentieth century. He trained in Europe, exhibited abroad, and held a succession of important teaching posts in his home country. His huge canvases combined traditional Chinese heroic subjects with Western realism and were seen as ushering in a new era in Chinese painting. Xu Beihong’s best-known works are his monochrome ink paintings of galloping horses, which integrated Chinese brushwork with Western foreshortening and realism and brought him enduring fame.

Xu Beihong was born in Yixing, Jiangsu Province. His father, a farmer and self-taught artist, was also Xu’s first teacher. Xu showed talent at an early age—he and his father made their livings as itinerant portrait painters—and at the age of seventeen he began to teach painting at a local school. In May 1917 Xu received financial support to study abroad in Tokyo. He returned at the end of the year and was given a position at the Society for the Study of Painting Technique at Beijing University by Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), who was a strong advocate of the New Culture Movement that sought to rejuvenate China’s arts.

In 1919 Xu left to study art in Paris on a government scholarship at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where he also participated in salon exhibitions. In 1920 he met and studied under the French realist painter Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929), a strong antimodernist known for his meticulous attention to detail. From Dagnan-Bouveret Xu learned the importance of technique. For Dagnan-Bouveret drawing was the foundation of painting; he valued precision and transmitted these standards to his students.

Xu returned to China in 1927 and taught at the Nanguo Art College before being appointed by Cai Yuanpei as the head of the art department of National Central University. He began painting his large canvases of heroic and patriotic subjects that united Chinese brushwork and themes with Western realism. At this time he began working with the horse as subject, first seen in Jiufang Gao of 1930. This would lead to the large work, Galloping Horse (1941), a theme he used for the rest of his life and for which he became internationally known. Xu Beihong continued to exhibit in solo shows and group exhibitions. In 1933 he organized a successful exhibition of Chinese painting that traveled throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. After 1949 Xu Beihong was named president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and president of the Chinese Association of Workers in the Arts. In 1951 a stroke paralyzed him, and he died in 1953. In 1954 the Xu Beihong Memorial House was established at his residence in Beijing.

In the end Xu Beihong’s importance lies not in his abilities as a painter but rather in his dedication and passion as an art educator. His interest in European academic realism and firm belief that strong technique and discipline are the necessary foundations for a painter shaped generations of Chinese artists in the twentieth century.

Further Reading

Fong, W. C. (2001). Between two cultures: Late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinese paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and artists of twentieth-century China. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Source: Pagani, Catherine. (2009). XU Beihong. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2526–2527. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Xu Beihong’s galloping horses, the dominant theme of his work after 1941, earned him enduring fame. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

XU Beihong (Xú B?ihóng ???)|Xú B?ihóng ??? (XU Beihong)

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