About this artwork
Ren Yi was among the most successful and influential among Chinese painters of the so-called Shanghai School. Arriving in Shanghai in 1857, he took the artistic name “bonian” (one-hundred years), claiming that it would take him a century to achieve success. However, by 1875 Ren Yi was the best-known painter in Shanghai. His highly sought-after bird-and-flower paintings initially followed the Song dynasty (960–1279) convention of applying rich color fields within outlines, producing decorative patterning with lifelike representation. This work represents his mature, more spontaneous style that is characterized by looser brushwork, more ink washes, and greater tonal variation.
These five pairs of birds represent the Five Cardinal Relationships, following the Neo-Confucian principle that strict and proper implementation of hierarchy among different groups achieves social harmony. Above, a pair of long-tailed phoenixes roosting in the branches of a Wutong tree represents the preeminent relationship: a ruler and his subjects. Emerging from behind are two cranes, who, more commonly associated with longevity, represent filial piety. Perched above the cranes, a pair of orioles signifies the relationship between older and younger siblings. Marital loyalty is embodied in the pair of ducks swimming in the water below, and friendship is captured in the jovial interaction of two wagtails. The artist’s choice of such an orthodox subject revealed his firm belief in the traditional values of Chinese society.
Currently Off View
- Asian Art
- Ren Yi
- The Five Virtues
- Hanging scroll; ink and colors on paper
- 185.9 × 97.2 cm (73 1/2 × 38 1/4 in.)
- Gift of Florence Ayscough and Harley Farnsworth MacNair Collection