Tang Yin (1470-1523), Playing the Zither. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. 45 7/8 x 23 in. (116.2 x 58.4 cm.) Estimate: $1,200,000-1,800,000
‘This depiction of two close friends, seated in a hut in natural surrounds, epitomises the Ming dynasty ideal of the Chinese intellectual elite,’ explains specialist Elizabeth Hammer. ‘The two men are depicted relaxed, enjoying music and art together, free from the worries or complications of ordinary society.’
Tang Yin, the artist behind the work, is likely to have led a similar lifestyle: ‘He was fortunate to live in the picturesque city of Suzhou,’ says Hammer, ‘at that time, filled with culturally accomplished men and women who would have offered the artist friendships like the one painted here.’
Robert Ellsworth often hung the painting in his library. ‘One of the seals shows the work once belonged to his mentor and great friend Alice Boney,’ explains Hammer. ‘In this way, the work is also an embodiment of the collector’s own close friendships.’
Bada Shanren (1626-1705), Various Subjects. Album of ten leaves, ink and ink and colour on paper. Seven leaves signed by the artist. Each: 5 5/16 x 8 1/2 in. (13.5 x 21.4 cm.) Estimate: $250,000-300,000
Heralded as one of China’s most innovative painters and calligraphers, Bada Shanren felt the world was ‘an unreliable place, where stability and reality were questionable notions,’ says Elizabeth Hammer.
‘This album [of which one of 10 leaves is shown here] gives a window into his odd and engaging vision,’ Hammer says. Whilst one image shows an explosion of lotus leaves, another depicts a bird about to tip over — the most surprising drawing showing a lumpy and misshapen melon.
Hammer attributes these unique images to an extraordinary life: ‘Bada was a distant relative of the Ming royal family,’ she explains. ‘When the dynasty collapsed Bada took refuge as a Chan (Zen) monk, absorbing teachings on the ubiquity of change and fluid nature of reality.
‘An iconoclast himself, Robert Ellsworth loved to challenge people’s expectations,’ adds Hammer. ‘He must have deeply enjoyed — and chuckled over — Bada’s bold, witty images.’
Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), Lillies, 1964. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 57 x 22 3/4 in. (144.8 x 57.8 cm.) Estimate: $700,000-900,000
This large painting by Pan Tianshou hung in Robert Ellsworth’s foyer, and was one of the first works of art visitors would see when they entered his Fifth Avenue apartment.
‘Not many works by Pan Tianshou survive,’ says Elizabeth Hammer, ‘and the best, like this one, are big, colourful and bold, with expressive brushwork that is harsh and unrefined.’
‘Like Robert Ellsworth,’ Hammer adds, ‘Pan Tianshou was a self-made man. Born in the countryside, he was self-taught, and learned to paint from manuals — although he eventually developed a uniquely bold and expressive style.’
Xie Zhiliu (1910-1997), Lu Yanshao (1909-1993), Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Hyang Zhou (1925-1997) and others, Various Subjects. Album of twenty-seven double leaves, ink and ink and colour on paper. Estimate: $250,000-300,000
‘This album is a feast of bright and energetic paintings by more than 20 modern masters,’ explains Hammer. ‘Works include pastel blossoms by Lin Fengmian, eagles by Huang Zhou, Xie Zhiliu’s jewel-like bird on a branch, Cheng Shifa’s scholar contemplating a rolling sea, and Lu Yanshao’s convoluted landscape.
‘This album was made for the doctor Li Yashun, who lived and worked in Hangzhou when these pictures were painted, between 1975 and 1978,’ adds Hammer. ‘Considering how fabulous these paintings are, Dr. Li must have been a terrific medical practitioner!’
Shi Lu (1919-1982), Prunus Branch and Rock, 1971. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and color on silk. 51 1/4 x 26 1/4 in. (130.1 x 66.6 cm.) Estimate: $150,000-200,000
‘This painting was one of the first Robert Ellsworth bought by the artist, who became his favourite,’ says Elizabeth Hammer. ‘He appreciated Shi Lu’s subtle imagery, embraced what he called Shi Lu’s “brutal” brushwork, and saw originality and genius in his unstable personal history.
‘Mr Ellsworth would frequently declare Shi Lu to be China’s best modern artist — better than even Qi Baishi. Over the decades, Mr. Ellsworth collected dozens of paintings by Shi Lu and never ceased to admire and enjoy them, steadfastly refusing to part with his favourites amongst them.’