The present screen is related to a Kangxi period, twelve-panel screen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, illustrated by W. de Kesel and G. Dhont in Coromandel Lacquer Screens, Gent, 2002, p. 62, which features a pair of deer seated beneath a large flowering tree and exotic birds on the banks of a lotus pond. The outer borders are similarly decorated with the ‘One Hundred Antiques’. The ‘One Hundred Antiques’ interspersed with floral arrangements is the most common decorative motif found on lacquer screens of this type.
The reverse of this twelve-panel screen is decorated with paintings and calligraphy in fan-leaf and album-leaf formats. This theme is rarely seen on carved lacquer screens which are more often decorated only with highly sumptuous and auspicious motifs. In this regard, the present screen not only conveys auspicious meanings as seen on the front but also demonstrate the owner’s fine scholarly taste.
Among the various paintings and calligraphies represented on this screen, the most notable ones include a running script calligraphy by Tang Yin (1470-1524), a fan-leaf painting of lotus by Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and a fan-leaf painting of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering by Wen Zhengming (1470-1559). Three of the Four Masters of the Ming dynasty, Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming and Tang Yin, like the remaining master Qiu Ying (1494-1552), were all natives of Suzhou. Suzhou was known as Wu in ancient times, and they are therefore also regarded as the Four Masters of the Wu School.
In the late Ming period, as the literati taste and ideas began to dominate artistic practices, the Wu School started flourishing and became the mainstream for Chinese paintings. It is interesting to note that the composition of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering on the present screen is very similar to Wen Zhengming’s hand scroll painting of the Orchid Pavilion Gathering in the Palace Museum, illustrated in Ming sijia huaji (The Paintings of the Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty), Tianjin, 1993, no. 118. It is possible that the patron of this screen was in the cultural elites’ circle and had the opportunity to see Wen Zhengming’s original painting.
The long tradition of the literati gathering started in the Lanting (Orchid Pavilion) with the meeting that took place in the ninth year of the Yonghe reign (AD 353) of the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD 317-420). Forty-two scholars were invited to the Orchid Pavilion near Shanyin, Zhejiang province, for the Spring Purification Festival. The participants were seated beside a stream with floating wine cups. Each was given one initial character and was tasked to compose poems. Those who produced two poems had to drink one cup of wine, while those who only composed one poem drank two cups, and those who failed to compose any poetry at all, paid a forfeit of consuming three cups.
Above the Orchid Pavilion Gathering fan-leaf is a calligraphy album by the prominent Ming scholar-official Wang Shouren (1472-1529). Wang Shouren, who was a native of Yuyao, Zhejiang province, was a successful statesman, philosopher and calligrapher. After passing the jinshi examination in 1499, he intermittently led military campaigns against rebels and criminals in the south, served as provincial governor and wrote and lectured. His primary philosophic principles focused on the importance and development of the individual intuitive mind. His suggestion that knowledge and action are inextricably linked was very influential in Ming, Qing and 20th century Chinese thought.
Another prominent scholar-official represented on this screen is Wang Shizhen (1526-1590). Wang Shizhen (1526-1590), who is also known by his hall name bianzhou shanren, was a successful statesman, scholar and art connoisseur during the Jiajing (1522-1566) and Wanli (1573-1620) periods. Other notable artists and scholars presented on this screen include two other Wu school painters, Xie Shichen (b. 1488) and Lu Zhi (1496-1576); the most prominent flower and bird painter in the Ming dynasty, Xu Wei (1521-1593); two Fujian artists, Huang Daozhou (1585-1646), and Wu Bin (1573-1620); one Songjiang school artist, Chen Jiru (1558-1639); and Ni Yuanlu (1593-1644).
It is interesting to note that Huang Daozhou, Ni Yuanlu, and another official-scholar presented here, Wang Siren (1575-1646), are three famous Ming loyalists. Ni Yuanlu committed suicide after Li Zicheng’s (1606-1645) peasant rebels captured Beijing. Wang Siren served in the Southern Ming court after the collapse of the Ming in 1644, and fasted to death after he was captured by the Qing army. Huang Daozhou also died in resistance against the Qing. Promoting these Ming loyalists was sensitive and to some extent dangerous in the Qing dynasty, particularly during the intensive literary inquisition of the early 18th century. The representation of works by three prominent Ming loyalists on this screen may suggest the owner’s political orientation and a relatively early date for the work.