Say it with flowers a rare gift from Zhang Daqian

Say it with flowers: a rare gift from Zhang Daqian

A silk undergarment hand-painted with symbolic peonies was a gesture of love from China’s most popular artist

‘This hand-painted silk dress is a really surprising discovery,’ says Camille de Foresta, Christie’s specialist in Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it at auction before.’

She’s referring to a simply cut, white silk undergarment, featuring a floral design painted by China’s most popular artist, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983).

Zhang was born into an artistic family in Sichuan province in the final years of China’s Qing dynasty, and would go on to become one of the best-selling artists in the world. His detailed portraits, floral still lifes and expressive splashed-ink landscapes rooted in Chinese tradition are particularly prized at auction.

‘As soon as I saw it, I felt like I was entering the intimate world of the painter’

The present garment, however, is like no other Zhang works recently offered on the open market. ‘It’s extremely rare for delicate hand-painted clothing in this category to come to auction,’ says de Foresta. ‘As soon as I saw it, I felt like I was entering the intimate world of the painter.’

From the two red seals and inscription on the front of the garment, we know that it was painted in Buenos Aires in March 1952. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly who it was painted for.

De Foresta presumes that it once belonged to a lover or wife, probably Zhang’s fourth wife Xu Wenbo, whom he married in 1949, the year in which he left China permanently. Soon after, he painted Separation, which depicts Xu as a seated lady in traditional costume, and sold for HK$34,260,000 in 2012 at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Separation, 1952. 91.7 x 45.8 cm (36⅛ x 18 in). Sold for HK$34,260,000 on 29 May 2012 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, HKCEC Grand Hall
Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Separation, 1952. 91.7 x 45.8 cm (36⅛ x 18 in). Sold for HK$34,260,000 on 29 May 2012 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, HKCEC Grand Hall

It was extremely rare for Zhang to declare his love for his wife in a painting enhanced with a poem, says the specialist, which makes this portrait a truly romantic gift of love. Could the same be said of the garment?

‘I like to think so,’ says de Foresta with a smile. ‘I imagine that he painted it while Xu was away and that she found it on her return decorated with this beautiful floral pattern. What a surprise it must have been. It’s is an extremely intimate, if unusual, gesture.’

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Pivoines, 1952. Ink and colour on silk dress. Signed by the artist with two seals dated third month of renchen year (1952). Height 110 cm, width 49 cm (43⅜ x 19⅜ in). Estimate €10,000-15,000. Offered in Art dAsie on 23 June 2020 at Christie’s in Paris
Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Pivoines, 1952. Ink and colour on silk dress. Signed by the artist with two seals dated third month of renchen year (1952). Height: 110 cm, width 49 cm (43⅜ x 19⅜ in). Estimate: €10,000-15,000. Offered in Art d'Asie on 23 June 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

The ink painting, which depicts one budding and one blossoming peony, an onion, and a sprig of small white flowers amid branches and leaves, is characteristic of the artist’s painterly style. ‘You can recognise his hand by the way he mixes the motifs,’ explains de Foresta. ‘It’s much more difficult to paint on silk garments than on paper. So this work brilliantly demonstrates his skill and handling of the brush.’

As for its symbolism, de Foresta says that in ancient Chinese culture, the peony represents spring, prosperity, wealth, power and virtue. ‘So it’s as though Zhang is seeking to bestow a joyful and prosperous life on his loved one.’

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A small number of other hand-painted silk garments by Zhang are known to exist. In 2001, Christie’s in Hong Kong offered a woman’s Mandarin dress depicting orchids that originally belonged to the wife of Zhang’s friend, Mr Liu Liangnian.

‘The main difference between the two pieces is that the painting on the dress offered in 2001 was made to be seen. It was a very public gesture of friendship,’ says de Foresta. ‘This dress, on the other hand, is a private expression of romantic love.’

So who will it appeal to? ‘Lovers in lockdown,’ muses de Foresta, ‘and collectors of Chinese paintings keen to acquire something extremely unusual — and relatively affordable — by one of the most important painters in China.’

Zhang Daqian’s Pivoines  will be offered in Christie’s Asian Art sale on 23 June, with an estimate of €10,000-15,000.