Xu Wenbo is the most virtuous and blessed, because the other three wives, one passed away, another divorced and the third is suffering in China.
She is the only wife who travels with Zhang Daqian everywhere, taking good care of him and the family.
-@Xie Jiashao, The Story of Zhang Daqian.
The fourth wife of Zhang Daqian, Xu Wenbo, formerly known as Xu Hongbin, was born in Chengdu, Sichuan in 1927. Xu was very fond of painting since childhood. In 1943, knowing that her classmate Zhang Xinrui was the daughter of Zhang Daqian, she begged Zhang for a glimpse of the painter in action. When Zhang Daqian first met Xu Wenbo, he was stunned by her beauty and elegance. Delightedly he started demonstrating how he painted and showing his paintings to her. Since then, Xu visited Zhang frequently and asked him to become her tutor. However, Zhang turned her down because "according to the stringent rules of Dafeng Tang, I should not take her as my student because I would love to marry her. Now my wife would at times mention this old story, saying that I looked down upon her, which in fact was the opposite: she was too good to be just my student!"
Xu and Zhang felt in love with each other and finally, they got married in 1947. Separation was painted in March, 1952 when Zhang Daqian was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Upon receipt of a photo and a love letter from Xu Wenbo loaded with sadness of parting, Zhang was touched and immediately painted a portrait of her as a seated lady in traditional costume. The inscription attested to Zhang's suffering over their separation as well as Xu's loneliness and melancholy. It was extremely rare for Zhang Daqian to declare the love of his wife in painting with a poem, making this portrait a truly romantic gift of love.
A master of gongbi and xieyi styles, Zhang Daqian excelled in all areas of Chinese painting, and at the zenith of his artistic career, he stood alone in portrait painting. Zhang's portraits of women are imbued with a softness of touch and are true objects of fantasy - painted in fine but robust lines, with eyes that exude tenderness, dresses as delicate they show movement on paper, as if lifted by the wind. Zhang's skill conveys the elegant and meditative qualities of the traditional Chinese female, confirming his love for beauty, especially the beautiful women which he painted throughout his life.
Yu Fei'an once said, "Of Daqian's figure paintings, his female portraits are most lauded for they are bold and creative." He further explained, "With an intimate observation of the female psyche, he speaks for the women he paints with but a few very delicate strokes. This is the magic of his art, but also the result of his effort in understanding the female gender."
Zhang's beauties emanate an air of magnificence, and are the result of his painstaking study from Ming and Qing masters to the Tang murals in Dunhuang. These portraits inherited the greatness, uniqueness and characteristics of the three dynasties, whilst embodying Zhang's own rich technique and audacious creativity.
Zhang Daqian first learned to paint women through copying works by Ming and Qing artists such as Tang Yin, Gai Qi, Fei Danxu and Ren Bonian. Zhang Daqian was punctilious about the execution of his figures' hair and beard. He explained, "If one fails to paint a figure's hair or beard well, it will look like a black soaked sponge stuck to the face. Song and Tang artists were experts in painting hair and beards. Their method is to apply countless small strokes in heavy ink sparsely along the shape of the figure's face, then reapplying light ink on the surface two or three times to soften the appearance to give a natural and realistic touch."
In 1941 Zhang Daqian went to Dunhuang and spent three years copying the murals in the Mogao Caves. His later style owes much inspiration to Dunhuang, adding much brightness and colour to the portraits. Zhang once said, "One must do preparatory drawing when painting a portrait, as you would for a female portrait. To paint a woman in gongbi style, one must not paint carelessly, for one unscrupulous stroke can ruin the whole picture." Zhang Daqian's woman portraits entered a mature phase in the 1950s. His female portraits, painted vividly with a modern touch, were a breath of fresh air for his contemporary audience. In 1949, Zhang embarked on an odyssey that took him around the world - having left China, he went to the Ajanta Grottoes in India in 1951 to study the murals there. He resided in India and Hong Kong briefly, then in 1952 he moved to Argentina and soon settled in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Despite the frequent relocations, this period is Zhang's artistic creativity at its zenith especially for his female portraits.
Separation was created in 1952 by Zhang Daqian at the acme of his artistic career. A true masterpiece among Zhang's oeuvre, this painting exemplifies the best of Zhang's female portraits in terms of quality, realism and creativity. In dedicating this work to his wife Xu Wenbo, Zhang silently articulates his love and emotions in this exceptional portrait.