Various kinds of trees, rocks, and a pavilion are silhouetted against a spacious expanse of river, the further bank of which appears in the far distance. According to the artist’s inscription here, the scene is based on the famous picture of the Shih-tzu Lin (‘Lion Grove’) garden in Suchou painted jointly by Ni Tsan and Chao Yuan in 1373 (fig. 1). The types of trees and the rock forms are in fact quite similar while the visual effect here is more elegantly restrained—more like Ni Tsan (1301-74) and less like Chao Yuan (d. after 1373), who may have contributed more than Ni to the original.
Hung-wu (d. 1811) was the second son of Yun-mi, Prince Hsien, and the grandson of the K’ang hsi emperor. In 1763 Hung-wu was granted a title of imperial nobility, becoming a Second Class Defender-general of the State, and in 1774 he was advanced to Peile Prince, fourth highest of twelve titles of imperial nobility. Four years later he was stripped of his title for cause, and it was not until 1794 that he was rehabilitated to some extent, being granted title of General by Grace, which was the twelfth and lowest of the titles. In 1799 Hung-wu was again degraded and it was not until two years before his death in 1811 that he was again appointed General by Grace.
Having been born about 1730, Hung-wu was painting already by mid-century. During the 1760s he painted several times for the Ch’ien-lung emperor and it was likely imperial appreciation of his talents that earned Hung-wu promotion to Beile Prince in 1774. During the 1770s Hung- wu painted often for the emperor and obviously enjoyed a close relationship with the ruler, an important association that lasted until he attempted to influence a political decision and was stripped of his rank and title. During the 1780s and early ‘90s Hung-wu seems to have been mostly at leisure and thus able to paint frequently. In 1790 the emperor inscribed a poem on a painting done by Hung-wu at imperial request, a harbinger of Hung-wu’s rehabilitation in 1794. Hung-wu was also Commander-in-chief of his Banner and had little time to paint, judging from the general lack of dated works from the early 1790s until his death in 1811.
The present painting, done in 1796, is thus relatively rare. It is also clearly based on a Yuan dynasty painting then in the Ch’ien-lung imperial collection, suggesting some of the benefits accruing to Hung-wu after his reinstatement in 1796. The names appearing on the seals of this work—Yao-hua (‘the beauty of jade’); Yu-ch’ing (‘taking pleasure in purity’); Yu-yu Chu-shih (‘the recluse who is drunk and behind-the-times’)— were surely chosen in recognition of the very real dangers to any member of the imperial clan who displayed too much ambition and ability. Hung- wu thus devoted much of his life to the genteel arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, resulting in such paintings as the present, to the benefit of us all.
The Tu-hua Chi-lueh biography of Hung-wu was written during the latter part of the artist’s life: ‘Hung-wu of the imperial clan has tzu of Cho-t’ing and is called Shu-chai and also Yao-hua Tao-jen. He is the second son of Imperial Prince Hsien, endowed by nature with the intellect of one reborn. During his youth he attained enlightenment and in everything adheres to learning and elegance, treating writers and scholars with exceptional politeness. Among poets he enjoys T’ao (Ch’ien) and Wei Ying-wu and in painting he follows Tung (Yuan) and Chu-(jan), being able to master everything. Painting masters of his generation all withdraw their hands into their sleeves, without a critical word. Once appointed a Beile Prince, because of an (attempt) to influence events his rank of nobility was taken away. At present he serves as Commander-in-chief of his Banner.’1
1. Tu-hua Chi-lueh, Cambridge, 1933, p. 2b.
Fig. 1. Ni Tsan and Chao Yuan: ‘The Lion Grove Garden,’ 1373, detail, after Oswald Siren: Chinese Painting, New York, 1958, vol. 6, pl. 102.