A bearded warrior carrying a lance sits atop his horse, his head turned watchfully as he looks for any approaching enemy. The figure and horse face away from the viewer, suggesting the potential for movement at any moment.
Nakayama Koyo (1717-1780) was born in Sakaimachi in Tosa, Kochi prefecture. At age sixteen he began studying Confucianism and, in Kyoto, is said to have learned painting with Sakaki Hyakusen (1698-1753). Much of his knowledge of Chinese styles seems to have come from his own copies of old paintings and from his study of various block-printed books then coming into Japan. Moving to Edo, Koyo became famous for his landscapes and illustrations to Chinese stories.
The subject “Guan Yu on Horseback” was painted at least three times by Koyo during spring of the year 1769: a sketch on paper taken from some Chinse illustrated book, a painting done in ink only, probably that seen by his friend Ganta, and the present painting, the largest and most complex of them all, with landscape elements providing a far more spacious setting for the figure. Guan Yu (d. 219), one of the military heroes of the Three Kingdoms era, was presented with an elaborate silk robe by Cao Cao (155-220), who hoped thereby to induce Guan Yu to give up his allegiance to Liu Bei (162-223); as seen here, the principled Guan Yu did not deign even to dismount and rather received the robe on the end of his dragon-bladed lance.
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