Huang Hai, tzu Wo-yun (‘Reclining on Clouds’), was from Wu-yuan, located in Hui-chou in Anhui province. According to his inscription on the present painting, he lived on one of the peaks of the Fu-jung ‘Hibiscus’ Range, the main mountain group in Wu-yuan. During the early 1850’s the Taiping forces advanced from the south, leading to wide-scale fighting and social chaos in the area in which Huang lived. In 1853, the same year in which the Taiping army took Nanking and Chin-chiang, Huang Hai moved to Shanghai and thus was in the city during the period 1853-1855 when the Small Sword Society and the Triads controlled much of the area. During the next seven years Huang became well-known as a calligrapher, painter, and seal-carver. On an unpublished painting now in the Anhui Provincial Museum, the artist made the following interesting comment: ‘If the painting meets the standards or not, if the brushwork does or doesn’t fall outside the rules, if there is or isn’t brushwork, if it is a painting or not-only a legalist can decide!’
Huang remained in Shanghai until 1860, when he returned to Wu-yuan, perhaps made anxious by further Taiping successes in that year and continuing assaults on the city. The exact year of Huang’s birth is unknown but he is recorded as having died at the age of seventy-eight.
The present ‘Huang-shan Pines’ was painted in 1856 and thus while the artist was still in the beleaguered city. The basic idea and style are known from earlier Anhui-school paintings, those by Hung-jen (1610-1664), for example, but here the emphasis on endurance and strength is made more compelling by the increased bulk of the strongly modeled trunk and the size of the tree in relation to the rocks and the overall format. The force of this concentrated image is softened on closer viewing by the quality of the dryly brushed lines, which are more delicate and evocative of refined austerity.