‘The horse that dwarfs all others in their mediocrity’ – Xu Beihong’s artistic legacy

An important Southeast Asian collection of Chinese paintings is coming to auction this May. Take a look at the masterpieces by masters such as Xu Beihong


Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Running Horse, dated twenty-eighth year (of the Republic, 1939)(detail). Scroll, mounted and framed, ink on paper. 88.3 x 95 cm. (34 3/4 x 37 3/8 in.). Estimate: HK$1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 29 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Of all the Chinese artists of the 20th century, Xu Beihong is arguably the most successful one at amalgamating his artistic pursuits with his sense of social responsibilities. Stylistically, he chose to apply the techniques of Western Realism to traditional Chinese media, widening the pictorial possibilities created by a Chinese painterly lexicon. To him, the brushwork – the most crucial aspect of traditional Chinese painting – was no longer an independent element seeking its own amusement and prominence. Instead, it was employed as one of the tools of expression like charcoal sketches and oil paintings. Unbounded by the formalities of each medium, Xu Beihong conveyed his ultimate artistic vision and spirit by freely utilizing and mixing all the Western and Chinese technical characteristics and media.

‘Of the traditional techniques, one should preserve the outstanding ones, inherit the disappearing ones, change the inadequate ones, and infuse the adaptable Western techniques into one’s work.’– Xu Beihong

With relatively fewer works of figures and landscape, Xu Beihong’s oeuvre consists mainly of animal subjects. According to his student Zhang Anzhi, Xu’s animal paintings most fittingly highlight his adherence to traditional Chinese painting as well as his absorption of the Western painting tradition. These works often evince a metaphorical approach, a nod to Chinese literature. Amongst the many animals he had rendered, the horse is undoubtedly his best-known subject.

Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Three Horses, dated xinsi year (1941). Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. 104.8 x 100.8 cm (41 1/4 x 39 5/8 in). Estimate: HK$4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 29 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Xu Beihong displayed a predilection for painting horses early in his career, when he was emulating the animals featured on tobacco boxes. His works on horses were praised by the brothers Gao Qifeng and Gao Jianfu as early as 1916. Initially, he adopted the watercolour methods and painting techniques of Giuseppe Castiglioni. While the forms were anatomically accurate, these works did not exhibit any individual characteristics.

He began his travel and study in Europe in 1919 and returned to China in 1927. During his time abroad, he focused on studying Realism and sketched extensively, using objects from the real world and frequented local zoos. While he did not directly follow the stylistic approaches of his teachers Francois Flameng and Fernand Cormon, he was nevertheless influenced by the dynamism conveyed in their works.


Work by Xu Beihong’s teacher Fernand Cormon

After his return to China, his art took a turn toward the traditional Chinese, where ink, colour, and paper became his most frequently used media. As he developed his personal style, he also began to depict his horses in a highly individualized way. Using swift brushstrokes, thick lines were used to model the horse’s body; the “flying white” technique to draw its mane and tail; precise and delicate lines to delineate its features and knees. He rarely used a dry brush, wielding a saturated brush most of the time and painting quickly. He eschewed the background, directing the viewer’s gaze firmly at the horse itself. Just like what Du Fu, one of China’s greatest poets of Tang dynasty, put in his poem: ‘Soon the dragon-like horses emerge from the sky, dwarfing all the others in their mediocrity.’

Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Horse Drinking Water. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. 102 x 46 cm (40 1/8 x 18 1/8 in). Estimate: HK$1,500,000-2,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 29 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

If Xu Beihong’s majestic lions symbolize the Chinese state, then his horses the individuals – embodying fuller and more urgent emotions and feelings.

Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Galloping Horse, dated xinsi year (1941). Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. 103.8 x 89.2 cm (40 7/8 x 35 1/8 in). Estimate: HK$2,500,000-3,500,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 29 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

This spring, we are excited to present six works by Xu Beihong from the collection of Mr Chen Jiandun, five of which have a horse theme. Created between 1938 to 1941, in locations including Nanjing, Singapore, India, and Malaysia, these paintings came from the period during which Xu reached his mature style and was most prolific. Horse Drinking Water, Three Horses, Running Horse, Galloping Horse, and another Running Horse, while all employing the same subject matter, nevertheless manifest Xu’s accomplished skills at depicting the animal through different perspectives.

Renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist Chen Jiandun was born in the early 20th century and moved from China to Singapore in his youth. While in Singapore, he developed a successful career and founded a business empire in property development, shipping and cement manufacturing in Singapore and Hong Kong. Mr Chen was known for his generosity and philanthropic activities towards his hometown in China, making frequent visits and donations for infrastructure building from the 1950s.

As a keen photographer, Mr Chen became friends with many Singaporean artists in the Chinese and Western traditions who opened his eyes to Chinese paintings. With a passion for Chinese art, Mr Chen assembled an impressive collection of Chinese ink paintings throughout his life, with a particular interest in Xu Beihong, a love shared by many of his fellow Southeast Asian collectors. During his visits to China in the 1970s, he met many Beijing artists, such as Huang Zhou, Li Kuchan and Wang Xuetao, from whom he acquired these paintings. Many of these works were dedicated to him by these artists.

Two dozens of paintings will be offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 29 May, while seven works from this collection will be offered in the Exquisite Eye: Chinese Paintings Online from 16-30 May 2022.

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content