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Ts’ao Chen (first half of the 17th century)

“Autumn Landscape” 1636

Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
117.8 x 48 cm. (46 3/8 x 18 7/8 in.)

“On an Autumn day during the year 1636, painted by Ts’ao Chen.”

Artist’s seals:
Ts’ao Chen chih yin; Shu-chou Shih

Two scholars attended by servant with staff recline on rocks beside a swift-running stream. A gnarled pine juts out from the further bank to shade the figures while a band of mist conceals the bases of the mountains that tower above. Light washes of color were used on the trees and figures but much of the balance of the painting was done in ink alone. The rock and mountain forms are complex in composition, with dottings and judicious shading used to demarcate their internal divisions. The drawing is excellent, the composition tightly organized, marking the artist as a true master of his art.

Ts’ao Chen, tzu Erh-po, hao Yu-ts’en Shan-ch’iao and Shu-chou, was born in Suchou but moved together with his elder brother, Ts’ao Hsi (paintings dated 1600 to 1636), to live in Hangchou.[1] Ts’ao Chen is connected by the style of the present painting with such Suchou artists as Sheng Mao-yeh and by literary records with the city of Hangchou; in 1650 Ts’ao Chen contributed a landscape leaf to a collective album whose other leaves were done by Lan Ying, Liu Tu, Ch’i Chai-chia, Sun Ti, Chang Tsu, Chang Ku, and Ts’ao Yu-kuang, who was Ts’ao Chen’s son. All three members of the Ts’ao family were known as calligraphers and poets as well as painters; a poem by Ts’ao Chen was included in the Ming-kung Shan-p’u and poems and paintings by Ts’ao Hsi and Ts’ao Yu-kuang appear in the Ku-chin Hua-p’u.

Ts’ao Yu-kuang, the son of Ts’ao Chen, has paintings dated between 1650 and 1659. Inscriptions on those paintings together with a work done jointly with Sun Ti, a Hangchou pupil of Lan Ying, indicate that Yu-kuang too was active mainly the city of Hangchou. The short period of Yu-kuang’s activity may be accounted for by the fact that in 1664 he passed the chin-shih examination and may then have entered government service under the Manchus. Ts’ao Chen is also known to have visited Peking, presumably in pursuit of preferment at court.

Ts’ao Chen was given considerable notice in the T’u-hui Pao-chien Hsu-tsuan, whose chief editor was Lan Ying: “Ts’ao Chen was first named (Ts’ao) Yu; his tzu was Erh-po and he was from Hangchou. His versatility was extraordinary and even without a teacher he was able to paint. In imitation of the ancients he lowered his brush and excelled in penetrating the profound mysteries (of Nature). Thus none of his landscapes, figures, ladies-in-waiting, flowers and birds fail to arrive at the essence; however, his upright brush (sometimes) seems too self-conscious and dull. During the prime of his life he travelled to the capital city (of Peking) where the famous lords and great nobles all prized and appreciated him. Throughout his life he loved stringed and wind (musical instruments) and was addicted to heavy drinking. After he became intoxicated he would beat the Yu-yang drums and unconventionally jest and laugh. He was not limited strictly to the Way of Painting.”[2]


1. For a painting by Ts’ao Hsi, and another work by Ts’ao Chen, see Kaikodo Journal IX, Autumn, 1998, cat. numbers 11 and 12.

2. T’u-hui Pao-chien Hsu-tsuan, Hua-shih Ts’ung-shu edition, vol. 2, p. 875.

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