Welcome to my second column! This week we are moving across to China to look at the life and works of the artist Ch’en Shu (1660-1736).
Ch’en Shu, The White Cockatoo, Detail, 1721, Hanging scroll, ink and colours on paper, 94.0 x 43.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Steward Kennedy Fund. 1913 (13.220.31) (Image: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/36015)
Born in 1660, she came from an upper-class family which had, for many generations, lived in the Hsiu-shui district of Chiahsing prefecture, Chekiang province and produced a number of high-ranking officials in the local administration. She was born on the birthday of the god of literature (the third day of the second month) and it is perhaps because of this, that her parents named their daughter ‘Shu’ signifying “book”, “writing” or “to write” (Marsha Weidner).
In the Ch’ing dynasty, particularly in the lower Yangtze region, the cultural centre of the late imperial period, it was actually not unusual for the more liberal members of the upper classes to allow their daughters to paint, write poetry and practice calligraphy (Marsha Weidner). Highly conservative families restricted their daughters’ pursuits to domestic tasks and traditional feminine arts, such as needlework, in order to prepare them for their future marriages. In more progressive circles an education could, on the contrary, make a woman a more attractive choice as a future wife. Some men wished for a wife who could help to educate the children and with whom they could discuss literature. Ch’en Shu, then, was one of these women who, like their male counterparts, took up painting as a hobby, thus forming an early part of the scholar-amateur tradition which later became a core part of the Chinese artistic tradition.
It was said that, as an eight-year-old, she asked the boys in her family to show her what they were studying at school, so that she could learn it off by heart. Soon she could recite verbatim from books and continually copied fine examples of calligraphy and paintings that took her fancy. Her conservative mother strongly disapproved of such behaviour and refused to let her neglect her sewing in order to practice painting. Nevertheless, she managed to sneak into her father’s study and faithfully copy a famous painting that hung on the wall. Her furious mother gave her a beating but was visited by the god of literature in a dream, who told her, “I have given your daughter a brush. Someday she will be famous. How can you forbid it?” (Marsha Wilder). After this, a teacher was found to educate Ch’en Shu in the classics. Although the presence of the supernatural was not unusual for such biographies, it seems that these stories were used to justify her early interest in subjects which some may have seen as being inappropriate for a woman.
Ch’en Yao-hsün, who was close to his daughter and recognised her talent, is said to have bemoaned, “It is a pity she is female. Were she a male she would exalt the family name,” (Marsha Weidner). Unfortunately, he died before he could see this come to pass and the family’s fortunes subsequently declined when her mother chose not to remarry. Ch’en Shu, herself not yet married, taught her brother, Ch’en T’ing-ts’ai and helped to support the family through her needlework.
She later married a slightly eccentric widower, Ch’ien Lun-kuang, who, despite his family’s high status, claimed a teacher’s wage and, like his new wife’s father, never rose above the standing of national university student. Although marriage meant that Ch’en Shu incurred new demands on her time, she also gained a partner who shared her interests. Collections of her paintings sport inscriptions by her husband who earned a moderate living as a poet and calligrapher. Her father-in-law, Ch’ien Jui-cheng, a far more eminent calligrapher and landscape painter, also took a liking to Ch’en Shu’s work, comparing it to the famous master of flower images, Ch’en Shun. He was even so bold as to claim that her work surpassed his in ‘force and originality’ (Marsha Weidner).
Ch’en Shu painted in the genres of landscapes, figures and flowers, with examples surviving from all three. Further paintings, now lost, are recorded in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century catalogues. In terms of figure painting, she is shown to have favoured conservative depictions of edifying subjects selected from history or religion. In one album, also now lost, she progressed from images of the legendary emperors Fu His and Shen Nung, through to the Sung emperor T’ai-tsu. This album was later presented to the Ch’ien-lung emperor by her son and catalogued in the ‘superior’ section of the imperial art collection (Marsha Weidner).
In her landscape paintings, just as in her figurative ones, Ch’en Shu consciously imitated the styles of the old masters in an imaginative way, following practices of the early-Ch’ing orthodox school. In her mountain scenes, for example, references to past forms took precedence over a naturalistic depiction. She particularly admired the Yüan dynasty artist, Wang Meng and her painting, The Mountains are Quiet and the Days Grow Long, draws on Spring Dawn over Mount Tan-t’ai (Tan-t’ai ch’un-hsiao t’u) which is attributed to him. Far less true to Wang Meng’s original than previous works, it has been tentatively suggested that this shows a change in Ch’en Shu’s artistic tendencies, although her large-scale landscapes of this form do not survive in large enough numbers to propose a sequence of stylistic development. Further evidence that, towards the end of her career, she far more readily melded different artistic influences into her own personal style, is Reading the I-Ching in a Mountain Study. Upon it she has inscribed “Grasping the brush I wished to imitate Shu-ming’s [Wang Meng] Reading the I-Ching in a Mountain Study; but trusting my hand, unexpectedly I incorporated the brush methods of old master Shih-t’ien [Shen Chou]…Fu-an Ch’en Shu at the age of seventy-four .” (Marsha Weidner).
Ch’en Shu, Reading the I-ching in a Mountain Study, Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 82.8 x 54.8 cm. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China. (Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%B1%B1%E7%AA%97%E8%AE%80%E6%98%93%E5%9C%96.jpg)
It is for her flower paintings, however, that Ch’en Shu is best known. As with her landscapes, she produced scenes in a formal style, imitating old-style works of the great masters, but also sketches executed in a far more relaxed and light manner, not unlike those by practitioners of the Wu school. Of the latter, one of the most pleasing works, a 1713 album of ‘ten sketches from life’ (National Palace Museum), depicts flowers, vegetables, birds and insects which have been realised with direct applications of paint and a lack of outlines (Marsha Weidner). This style is reminiscent of the flower studies of the Suchou Master Ch’en Shun, on whom Ch’en Shu consciously modelled herself. Another, later, flower painting (Auspicious Flowers), depicts flowers and fruits for the celebration of New Year’s Eve, including orchids, plum blossoms, a red persimmon fruit, nandin and water lilies.
Ch’en Shu, Auspicious Flowers, Before 1736, Ink and colours on paper, 23.9 x 36.8 cm.Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China. (Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%90%89%E7%A5%A5%E8%8A%B1.jpg)
The White Cockatoo, by contrast, is one of Ch’en Shu’s more formal flower-and-bird paintings and, despite not being specifically stated as reproduction or imitation, depends heavily on Sung-Dynasty models (Marsha Weidner). An almost identical composition occurs on a 1427 scroll, professing to be a copy of an original by Sung Emperor Hui-tsung. This highly detailed style with an accurate, but nevertheless decorative, colour scheme and the emphasis of certain exquisite elements on a plain background and diagonal composition, is typical of Hui-tsung and the artists of the imperial painting academy (Marsha Weidner).
Ch’en Shu, The White Cockatoo, 1721, Hanging scroll, ink and colours on paper, 94.0 x 43.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Steward Kennedy Fund. 1913 (13.220.31) (Image: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/36015)
Following her death, Ch’en Shu’s eldest son, Ch’ien Ch’en-ch’ün, rose up through the ranks and became a high-level scholar-official. He introduced her works to the Ch’ien lung emperor, and the latter was very taken with Ch’en Shu’s paintings, often coming back several times to the same painting to add his own inscriptions, until the page was full. It was in this way, that many of her works entered the Ch’ing imperial collection and thus, were passed down to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
The other reason for our knowing so many biographical details about Ch’en Shu, is that Ch’ien Ch’en-ch’ün wrote a biography of his mother. Within the confines of contemporary societal conventions, a woman’s value lay in her assistance to her husband’s family and in particular, in the number of and level of success attained by the children she had brought up. These achievements and qualities were deemed far superior to her intellectual and creative ones, and therefore, it is her skills as a mother and teacher which Ch’ien Ch’en-ch’ün dwells on in his biography.
Despite not being the daughter of or marrying, a famous artist and although there were several other contemporary female artists of equal talent, it is Ch’en Shu’s legacy that endures. This is partially due to good fortune, with the emperor’s favour meaning that her paintings were incorporated into the imperial collection, leading to them being appreciated by high-class connoisseurs for years to come. However, her artistic legacy was intrinsically tied to her virtue as a woman, wife, mother and teacher. Ch’en Shu avoided slipping into obscurity, like many of her contemporaries did, due to her contribution to society, as well as to art. As Marsha Weidner puts it: “We should not be surprised or disappointed to find that although Ch’en Shu was an exceptional woman, she achieved success in the most conventional of ways.”
‘The Conventional Success of Ch’en Shu’ in Flowering in the Shadows: Women in the History of Chinese and Japanese Painting, ed. Marsha Weidner. This is available in the Courtauld Book Library or on Amazon.
A fan titled Peach and painting titled Flowers are in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
The White Cockatoo is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Postscript – Unfortunately the chapter in Marsha Weidner’s book, Flowering in the Shadows, written in 1990, is the only reliable English-language source that I could find on Ch’en Shu. The vast majority of her works are in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei and these are not available online. When writing this column, I became very drawn to Ch’en Shu’s story and hope that it inspires someone better equipped than I am to do some research using Chinese sources, perhaps starting with those listed in the notes on Marsha’s chapter.