A scholar walks leisurely along a riverbank defined by grass, bamboo, and leafless trees. The season is clearly late autumn or early winter, and the sharply drawn forms suggest the crystalline cold of that time of year. Beyond the river rise complex hills and cliffs, access to which is obtained by a walkway approaching from the left. The distant hills are executed mainly in ink wash. The painting as a whole demonstrates the artist’s full command of brush and ink while the verisimilitude of the forms and the successful integration of the composition mark him as an artist of rare talent and accomplishment.
Hu Chang, tzu T’ieh-mei (“Iron Plum-blossom”), was from Chien-te in Anhui province. His grandfather, Hu Cheng, had been a poet, calligrapher, and painter of some note, one associated with Ch’eng T’ing-lu (1796-1858) and others during the early 19th century. Hu Cheng travelled to Kuangtung and also lived in Nanking. Hu Yin, son of Cheng and father of Hu Chang, was a former magistrate and a specialist in painting who lived in several of the artistic centers of that time, including Yangchou, Suchou, and Shanghai. While in Suchou Hu Yin joined Yu Yueh (1821-1907), Chang Min-k’o (1828-1908), Wu Yun (1811-1883), and others in establishing the Plum Pavilion Painting and Calligraphy Association in 1873.1 Hu Yin stayed in Suchou’s Lion Grove Temple and painted for it a huge lion and elephant. Although Hu Chang’s birth was registered in Anhui, and some of his seals proclaim him “A son of Yao-ch’eng” or Chien-te, he seems to have been born or at least to have lived for a considerable period of time in Yangchou, where even today the local museum houses a good number of his paintings.
Hu Chang subsequently moved to Shanghai and then, in the year 1878, he traveled to Japan, perhaps in company with Wang Yin (ca.1829-1892 or later). The two artists were both regarded as followers of Wang Shih-shen’s (1686-1759) style of painting blossoming plums; Wang Yin, called Yeh-mei or “Nanking Plum-blossom,” was said to excel in painting thin blossoms while Hu Chang, called T’ieh-mei or “Iron Plum-blossom,” portrayed luxuriant blossoms. Living first in Nagoya and later in Kobe, Hu Chang married a Japanese woman and became fast friends with a number of influential artists and scholars before returning to Shanghai in 1886.
Hu’s growing reputation in artistic circles is attested to by his contributions to the new edition of the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual issued in 1887-88.2 Hu Chang came to know other major artists of the day, and in 1890 painted together with Hsu-ku (1823/24-1896) and Chu Ch’eng (1826-1900). Greatly impressed by the momentous changes occurring in Japan during the early Meiji era, Hu in 1896 also founded a newspaper, the Supao, presumably in an attempt to foster comparable change at home.3 Probably funded at least in part by Japanese, the newspaper was registered in the name of Hu’s wife, most likely in an effort to avoid scrutiny by the Ch’ing authorities. Hu Chang also established the Ku-hsiang Studio for Fans and Stationery, but neither this nor the newspaper was a financial success. Perhaps because of these failures, or because of involvement with the reform movement of K’ang Yu-wei in 1898, Hu Chang returned to Japan. His wife soon passed away and in 1899 Hu himself died and was buried near Kobe.
The present painting, although undated by inscription, was done in Japan, and thus most likely dates between 1878 and 1886, during his first sojourn in Japan.
1. Ju-hsi Chou: Scent of Ink, Phoenix, 1994, p. 157.