Zhao Mengfu’s Washing Horses as catalogued in Shiqu Baoji

A rare handscroll painting from the collection of the crown prince Hongli, the future Emperor Qianlong, still in its imperial packaging

The Emperor Qianlong is a towering figure in Chinese history. The fourth ruler of the Qing dynasty, he reigned for 60 years (1735-1796), extending the boundaries of the empire to its widest limits.

He had three wives, more than 40 concubines, 10 daughters and 17 sons, including his 15th, Yongyan, who would succeed him as emperor.

He was also a prolific poet, painter and celebrated collector and conservator of art, who ordered the compilation of classical Chinese literature known as the Sikuquanshu, and the catalogue of paintings and calligraphy in the Qing Imperial collection referred to as the Shiqu Baoji.

Today, many of the works he collected, which also included jades, porcelain and bronzes, are in the collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

‘On its frontispiece is a poem, inscribed and signed by the crown prince, and stamped with three of the young prince’s seals’ — Kim Yu

Qianlong’s passion for art emerged at a young age, when he was still Hongli, ‘prince of the first rank’. Secretly earmarked as the future ruler by his grandfather, the Emperor Kangxi, even though he was only the fourth-born son, Hongli was given a careful education that sparked an interest in calligraphy and painting: by the time he ascended the throne on 18 October 1735, he had at least 38 works in his collection.

One of these was Washing Horses  by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) as catalogued in Shiqu Baoji, an idyllic scene of horses frolicking in a lush spring landscape, as their attentive grooms, stripped to the waist and knee-deep in the river, sponge them down.

A highlight of Christie’s upcoming Fine Chinese Classical Paintings And Calligraphy sale on 28 May, the painting is expertly executed in ink and colour on silk, with splashes of blue and red against a layered ground of greys and greens that conveys an extraordinary sense of depth.

‘On its frontispiece is a long pentatonic poem, inscribed and signed by the 24-year-old Hongli in the autumn of 1735, and stamped with three of the young prince’s seals,’ says Kim Yu, International Specialist Head of Chinese Paintings Department.

Detail of Washing Horses. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 37.9 x 309.4 cm (14⅞ x 121¾ in). Estimate HK$16,000,000-24,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Classical Paintings and Calligraphy on 28 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Detail of Washing Horses. Handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 37.9 x 309.4 cm (14⅞ x 121¾ in). Estimate: HK$16,000,000-24,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Classical Paintings and Calligraphy on 28 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) was a Chinese calligrapher, painter and scholar who was active during the Yuan dynasty: an early master in the literati tradition, which favoured personal erudition and expression over the literal representation of nature.

Descended from the imperial family of the Song dynasty (960-1279), he was educated at the imperial university, but rejected the refined brushwork of his own era for the simplified approach to colour and composition developed by earlier masters such as the Tang dynasty painter Han Gan (c. 706-783), who was similarly celebrated for his horse scenes.

‘The exquisite craftsmanship of the accompanying jade toggle and brocade wrap further enhances the value of this precious work’ – Kim Yu

Hongli clearly cherished the painting. On becoming emperor, he had it transferred from the crown prince’s mansion to the imperial study in the Forbidden City, where in 1744, he commissioned the first series of the Shiqu Baoji.

The details of Washing Horses, including the text of the frontispiece and the seals, are presented in Chapter thirty-four of the catalogue, and conform to the handscroll offered at auction. Alongside the three seals from Hongli, there are three additional seals from the emperor Qianlong and one from his son, the emperor Jiaqing (r. 1796-1820).

The imperial packaging has also been preserved intact. Created in the imperial atelier, the inner silk and outer silk-brocade wraps are beautifully soft,

while on the reverse of the jade toggle, ‘Appreciated by Qianlong, Zhao Mengfu, Washing Horses’ is delicately engraved in gold. As Kim Yu, remarks: ‘The exquisite craftsmanship of the accompanying jade toggle and brocade wrap further enhances the value of this precious work.’

The frontispiece of Washing Horses, inscribed with a poem by the young prince Hongli
The frontispiece of Washing Horses, inscribed with a poem by the young prince Hongli
The wrapping of soft silk brocade with a jade toggle in pristine condition
The wrapping of soft silk brocade with a jade toggle in pristine condition

The final years of Qianlong’s reign were undermined by corruption and the mounting costs of his military campaigns, which ultimately contributed to the empire’s demise. It eventually fell in 1912, and in the years that followed, many works in the imperial collections were dispersed.

In April 1915, Washing Horses  was sold to the Asian art dealers Yamanaka & Co. from where it entered the Fujita Art Museum in Japan; a century later, it was sold at Christie’s in New York in a record-breaking auction that did much to revive interest in Chinese classical art.

Given that many of 38 works collected by Hongli, from Tang Yin’s Long Days in Tranquil Mountains  to Tang Dai’s Playing the Zither under Pine Trees, are now at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, to find one in private hands is extremely rare.

The Fine Chinese Classical Paintings And Calligraphy sale takes place on 28 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Washing Horses is offered with an estimate of HK$16,000,000-24,000,000 (US$2,000,000-3,000,000)