Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art and Head of the Department of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University
Executed in 1827 by Qian Du (1763-1844), this painting depicts the Guan Garden (Guanyuan) of Wang Xianghu, a scholar-official who had recently taken up retirement after leaving government service. It exemplifies the highest ideals of Chinese literati painting (wenren hua), which seeks to capture the idea, or essence, of the subject rather than its mere appearance and which also seeks to fuse poetry, painting, and calligraphy; such works typically draw inspiration from literary classics and from paintings of earlier periods, so that they incorporate a profusion of cultural and art-historical references.
Wang Xianghu commissioned Qian Du to paint this scroll to commemorate a gathering of friends in his garden. Apart from enjoying the garden's pleasures, the guests likely composed poetry, viewed each other's collected paintings, played music on the qin (zither), and perhaps competed in a game of weiqi (chess). So cultivated was the gathering that the contemporaneous scholar Liu Daguan (1753-1834) memorialized it in a short essay. In Liu's hand, that essay immediately follows the painting and also appears among his collected writings. Eleven of Wang's friends, some of whom attended the gathering, appended colophons to the scroll, immediately following Liu's essay. The essay and colophons attest to the pleasures of literati life, just as they reflect the strong bond between scholar-officials of the day.
The pleasures of retirement had been celebrated in Chinese literature since the early fifth century, when Tao Yuanming (365-427)--one of China's most famous poets--composed "Returning Home" (Guiqulai) after resigning from his official post and returning to his native village. Paintings of scholars in gardens appeared at least as early as the Song dynasty. In this painting, Qian Du references the lyrical styles and delicate colors of such Wu School masters as Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559).