Slave and Lion — A milestone work for Xu Beihong and Chinese modern art history

Ahead of the exclusive single-lot evening sale, specialist Grace Zhuang and John Stainton discuss why the masterpiece is a remarkable treasure of national history

Between 1919 and 1926, Xu Beihong — often referred to as the father of modern Chinese painting — lived in Europe. He studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and enjoyed observing and imitating techniques from classical European art in the museums, he also frequented different cities to draw inspiration from nature. 

It’s said that in 1922 he spent every day for three months sketching lions in the Berlin Zoological Garden. ‘I love to depict lions’, Xu said. ‘I have seen them smile, I have touched them in proximity, I have heard them roar angrily, and I have watched them dance.'  

All this practice would serve the artist well in the many depictions of lions he produced later in his career — none more memorable than Slave and Lion, which is being offered in a single-lot, Evening sale at Christie’s Hong Kong on May 24.

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Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Slave and Lion. Oil on canvas. 123.3 x 152.8 cm (48 1/2 x 60 1/4 in). Painted in 1924. Estimate: HK$350,000,000–450,000,000. Offered in Legacy: Xu Beihong’s Slave and Lion on 24 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

This seminal masterpiece was previously offered in 2006 and fetched a record price for a Chinese oil painting (HK$ 53,880,000). One of Slave and Lion’s many claims to fame is that it was not only the first thematic oil painting produced by Xu, but also the first historical oil painting ever executed by a Chinese artist.

The work was inspired by the classical tale of Androcles and the lion, in which a Roman slave took refuge in a cave from the cruelties of his master. There he unexpectedly encountered a lion, which to his surprise wished him no harm and simply showed him its injured paw. The animal had a large thorn stuck in it, which Androcles extracted.

Later, the slave was captured and sent to the circus by his master and as a punishment was to be thrown to wild beasts. There, the slave meets the same lion as before, who returns his initial act of kindness by caressing him instead of attacking him. To the astonishment of the crowd, both Androcles and the lion are set free.

Xu focuses on the moment in the story when the lion first enters the cave and finds the slave within.  ‘An aspect of the picture I love is the use of perspective’, says John Stainton, Deputy Chairman of Old Masters Paintings at Christie’s. ‘In the foreground, you have Androcles in the darkness of the cave. Then one's eyes are led past the lion, at the mouth of the cave, into the beautiful landscape in the distance’.

The work was painted in Europe in 1924, when the artist was approaching his 30th birthday. By this time he’d benefitted from a number of terms studying at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris (to which he’d won a Chinese government scholarship). During this time, Xu gained a grasp of many key elements of traditional European painting, including perspective and chiaroscuro (the sharp contrast of light and dark).  

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A Sketch of Slave and lion, painted in 1924. 47.5 x 63 cm. Xu Beihong Museum

He particularly admired Rembrandt’s mastery of the latter. In Stainton’s view, Slave and Lion is itself ‘a wonderful example of chiaroscuro’, adopted by the artist to ‘accentuate the drama in the narrative’. Androcles is shrouded in the cave’s darkness; the beast’s front half is too, but its rear half is sunlit.

Xu’s use of perspective and chiaroscuro embeds the scene with a realism that had been typical of European art for centuries. However, he manages to maintain a lyrical ambience at the same time, which is more oriental — especially in the picturesque beauty of nature beyond the cave.

As Xu Qingping — the artist’s son and director of the Xu Beihong Museum in Beijing — once said that his father ‘studied and mastered the best of both Chinese and Western painting’. The result was a marvelously unprecedented fusion.  

Born in 1895 in the city of Yixing, in Jiangsu province, Xu was among the first wave of Chinese painters — along with Lin Fengmian and Sanyu — to move to Paris at the end of the First World War. Where those two peers embraced the latest trends in European art, though, Xu was an ardent follower of academic realism. 

It should be pointed out that academic realism had largely fallen out of fashion in Europe by the late-19th century. However, without any hesitation, Xu continued forward and believed that academic realism would fulfil his vision of reviving Chinese painting. 

On return to China, he twinned his career as an artist (producing oil and, above all, ink paintings) with a career as an art educator. He became president of National Beiping Art School, and took up teaching positions at institutions such as National Central University in Nanjing.

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Xu Beihong with his students in Shijia garden, Chongqing, former site of China Academy of Art, photographed in winter, 1945

Then, when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, he was accorded the honour of being named the first director of the newly founded Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. 

Introducing Western ideas into Chinese practice was his broad ethos, and this would prove very much in tune with Socialist Realism, which became the country's official artistic style in the coming decades.

'Slave and Lion is a milestone work for Xu Beihong and Chinese 20th-century art', says Grace Zhuang, Senior Specialist and Head of Asian Modern Art at Christie's. 'This masterpiece from early in his career paved the way for much else that followed'.

The work was the first example in Xu’s oeuvre of what is known in Chinese art as thematic oil painting: that is, a picture that not only tells a story but also reflects the artist’s judgment or opinion on a scene. Slave and Lion is one of only four or five thematic oil paintings by Xu that is still in private hands, and is also the largest one as is known in private collection.

What judgment or opinion was Xu expressing here? It’s fair to say that he saw the story of Androcles and the lion in symbolic terms. According to Zhuang, ‘the slave represents the Chinese nation — in a corner, but defiant and determined in the face of danger. The lion, meanwhile, stands for the Chinese people's spirit — wounded, yet dignified, righteous and proud nonetheless'.

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The 1920s were a time of considerable unrest in China, then still a young republic, following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911-12, ending millennia of imperial rule. National authority largely disintegrated, and the country broke down into regions controlled by warlords — and eventually into civil war.

It was in this political context that Xu painted Slave and Lion. Even while abroad, home remained on his mind.

Xu elevated an allegorical tale about repaying kindness into a patriotic portrayal of resilience and fortitude. Beyond its artistic qualities, this picture served as a rallying cry for the revival of his nation.

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