Ink flowers and grasses rise from mist and create a receding ground-plane over which the butterflies glide and flutter. Strong ink contrasts enliven the surface of the painting, with the eye joining the darkest areas and thus moving through the composition in a series of diagonals. The butterfly carries connotations ranging from longevity to sexual bliss, and the creature itself is most lovely to look at, even when portrayed as here in the colors of ink alone.
Li Kuo-lung, tzu Tien-hsiang, hao Yueh-men, was born in Nan-hai, modern Kuang-chou. While a student in the National Academy Li was already well-known for painting butterflies. One of his most famous works, a ‘Hundred Butterfly’ handscroll, with portrait of Li by Lo Ch’eng-kung as a frontispiece, was created in 1849 and subsequently inscribed by numerous men of note. Li was also a specialist in music, and worked at times with Chang Wei-p’ing (1780-1859) and Huang P’ei-fang (degree in 1804). Li declared that poetry, wine, the lute, chess, calligraphy, and painting were his six friends and thus named his collection of poems Liu-yu-t’ang Shih-ch’ao, ‘Poems from the Hall of the Six Friends.’ Although Li’s birth and death dates are not given in standard sources, he was a contemporary and friend of Chang Wei-p’ing and thus likely to have lived from the later 18th century to at least 1849.