Birds in Autumn by Lin Fengmian (1900–1991). Lin often evokes a feeling of loneliness and isolation in his flower and bird paintings.
Flower and bird painting is a traditional Chinese painting genre that focuses on depicting plants and animals. It is much appreciated for the evocation of nature’s changing seasons and the painter’s lyrical emotions. In technique flower and bird painting uses either meticulously detailed and highly refined brushstrokes and colors or spontaneous lines, contours, and compositions for symbolic self-expression.
The earliest extant flower and bird painting, a scene with two crows perched on the branches of a tree, appears as part of the decorative embellishments painted on the exterior walls of an Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) earthenware house (a tomb model, part of Han funerary tradition), an artifact now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The first known painter to specialize in flower and bird paintings, however, was the fourth-century painter Liu Yinzu, according to the Classified Record of Ancient Paintings (Gu hua pin lu) by Xie He, an art critic and painter of the sixth century.
Flowers and Birds through the Dynasties
During the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE) flower and bird painting developed into an independent genre. During this time Huang Quan, Huang Jucai, and Xu Xi established a solid flower and bird painting tradition that profoundly influenced painters of the Song dynasty (960–1279) and later generations. On Huang Quan’s Sketches of Birds and Insects (handscroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing), birds, turtles, bees, cicadas, locusts, and other small creatures are naturalistically rendered and colored in great detail. The variation of size, color, light and shade, gestures, perspectives, and composition in this picture represents a rhythmic and balanced view of the beauty of nature.
During the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126) painters made significant advancements over previous traditions of flowers and birds. A leading figure was the court painter Cui Bai (flourished eleventh century). His Magpies and Hare (hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 1061, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan) captures the surprised reaction of a hare turning its head 180 degrees back toward a pair of tweeting magpies. The round contour of the hare parallels the gently slanting hill. Broad, loose brushstrokes depict the hill, which is counterbalanced by the diagonal, jagged tree. Grasses, branches, and leaves sway in the autumn wind.
Toward the end of the Northern Song dynasty the patronage of EmperorHuizong (1082–1135, reigned 1100–1125) ensured the popularity of flower and bird paintings. Indeed, Huizong himself was an accomplished painter. He emphasized the visual representation of poetic ideas that were rooted in classical beauty and realistic observation. In his Finches and Bamboo (handscroll, ink and color on silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) two birds are perching on bamboo branches on a bright spring morning. The bamboo leaves are colored in turquoise green. The contrast between void and solid spaces, black and white ink tones, and the formations of the rocks and the organic growth of the bamboo branches represents the emperor’s refined taste for poetic ideals. It is a vision of a sequestered ruler in a harmonious and quiescent world.
During the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) flower and bird subjects were painted by both conservative court painters and literati scholar amateurs. The court painters followed the Song tradition in the naturalistic portrayal of grass carps, minnows, shrimps, lotus flowers, water birds, and so forth, whereas the literati painters, including Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), Wu Zhen (1280–1354), and Wang Mian (1287–1359), were particularly in favor of bamboos and plum blossoms because bamboos and plums, together with the pine tree, were considered three friends of the cold, wintry season and stood for perseverance, purity, courage, and regeneration of a virtuous gentleman.
During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) monochrome ink paintings developed in the works of Lin Liang (1416–1468), Shen Zhou (1427–1509), Tang Yin (1470–1524), Chen Chun (1483–1544), and Xu Wei (1521–1593). Among them Xu Wei used calligraphic and spontaneous brushstrokes in a highly expressive mode. In his Grapes (hanging scroll, ink on paper, Palace Museum, Beijing) a grape bough bears sprays of branches and transparent grapes.
Flower and bird paintings remained a major genre during the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644–1912). When western Europeans came to the Qing court, Chinese painters learned oil painting techniques and applied perspective, light, shade, and the illusion of three dimensionality to their painting. Zhang Weibang’s The Glory of the New Year (hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing) is such an example and recalls the still-life painting in the Netherlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other accomplished painters included Shen Quan (1682–1765), Ren Bonian (1840–1895), and Zhao Zhiqian (1829–1884). Ren Bonian’s Pheasants and Dahlia (hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, Palace Museum, Beijing) separates areas of color from ink. Thin ink wash defines the flower branches, while thick ink depicts the bird plumes. Intense red color is contrasted with the green leaves.
A leading artist of the flower and bird genre of the twentieth century was Qi Baishi (1864–1957), whose most common subjects were fish, shrimp, crabs, and frogs. In Shrimp (hanging scroll, ink on paper, 1949, China Fine Art Gallery, Beijing), Qi Baishi uses different shades of ink and adds water to the paper surface to express the transparency, liveliness, and playfulness of the water-dwelling creature. Another artist, Yu Fei’an (1889–1959), painted flower and bird subjects with meticulous detail in a style that follows the Song tradition. In his Peonies (hanging scroll, ink and color on paper, China Fine Art Gallery, Beijing) the heroic peonies in intense red and luminous yellow colors are supported by silver gray and turquoise green stalks and leaves.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, painting often served propagandistic purposes, and most artists were employed by the state prior to 1980. After the end of the repressive Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), artists were able to express personal feeling and individuality. For instance, an important painter, Lin Fengmian (1900–1991), evokes a feeling of loneliness and isolation in his landscape and flower and bird paintings.
Chinese painters have used flowers, birds, and other creatures as an important genre since the Five Dynasties period. Throughout its development different techniques and traditions have been established, and flower and bird subjects have been used to represent different moods, personal feelings, or aesthetic tastes of the artists and the state.
Source: Jiang, Yu. (2009). Painting—Flower and Bird. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1693–1696. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Left page: “Flowers of thorny and climbing plants (wild rose, pass-over-the-clouds).” Right page: “Large flower of the peony, in full flower, front view.” FROM “BOOK OF FLOWERING PLANTS,” IN THE MUSTARD SEED GARDEN MANUAL OF PAINTING BY CHIEH TZU YUAN HUA CHUAN, 1679–1701.
Left page: “Swallows perched together. Resting together.” Right page: “Crane. Egret.” FROM BOOK OF FEATHERS-AND-FUR, IN THE MUSTARD SEED GARDEN MANUAL OF PAINTING BY CHIEH TZU YUAN HUA CHUAN, 1679–1701.
A scroll painting of a blossoming plum branch by Wang Mian (1287–1359). Bamboos and plum blossoms, together with the pine tree—three friends of the cold wintry season—stand for perseverance, purity, courage, and regeneration of a virtuous gentleman.
Huang Quan’s Sketches of Birds and Insects (handscroll, ink and color on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing). Birds, turtles, bees, cicadas, locusts, and other small creatures are naturalistically rendered and colored in great detail. The variation of size, color, light and shade, gestures, perspectives, and composition in this picture represents a rhythmic and balanced view of the beauty of nature.
Painting—Flower and Bird (Hu?-ni?o huà ???)|Hu?-ni?o huà ??? (Painting—Flower and Bird)