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Huang Shen

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Huang Shen
Ch'ing Yangzhou painter, calligrapher and poet
(1687–1773)
Chinese painter, calligrapher and poet. His father died when Huang was young, and in order to support the family Huang was obliged to pursue a professional career in painting. Although he specialized in portraiture and figure painting, he was also skilled as a painter of landscapes, plants and birds. His versatility was a characteristic he shared with his teacher, Shangguan Zhou (b 1665), a leading Fujian painter whose surviving works include "Wanxiao tang huazhuan" (‘Painting record of the Wanxiao Hall’), a woodblock-printed work depicting historical characters. Huang was encouraged by his mother to aspire to a loftier goal than that of a mere craftsman, the status generally accorded professional painters. He began his education at the age of 18; asserting the oneness of painting and poetry, he studied both arts and in 1734 published the "Jiaohu shichao" (‘Poetic anthology by Jiaohu’), Jiao hu being a lake to the north of Ninghua. He often included elegantly phrased inscriptions on his paintings, thereby incorporating poetry, calligraphy and painting in a single work. His calligraphy was initially modelled after the kaishu (regular script) of Zhong You (AD 151–230) but was later influenced by the caoshu (cursive script) of Huaisu. The best examples of his style are bold and sweeping, executed with an unerringly crisp and sure touch and with intricately spaced characters.

Huang is generally classified as one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou (see Yangzhou school). His association with that city began as early as 1724 and lasted for at least 30 years. At first his reception was lukewarm, but by 1730 Huang had developed individual styles of calligraphy and painting, free from an earlier dependence on Xiao Chen ( fl late 17th century–early 18th) and Han Fan. Eventually, his cursive calligraphy and ink-play technique (moxi) became popular among collectors in Yangzhou and established him as a major figure in the city’s art circles. His paintings were often distinguished by mannered, tremulous brushstrokes used to outline and contour forms, which were then coloured with pale vegetable pigments or ink washes. So lucrative did his painting practice become that he was able to buy a house and spend his days drinking and composing poetry with Li Shan, Gao Xiang ( fl 1700–30) and other friends.

Huang reached the height of his success between 1723 and 1735. Documentary evidence about his life thereafter is scarcer, but extant paintings confirm that he continued to paint well into his later years. Qingliang Daoren, in his Tingyu xuan biji (‘Notes from the Tingyu studio’), referred to a painting done by Huang in 1764 when he was 78 years old; it depicted an old man holding a chrysanthemum, a favourite subject of the artist, which he treated with gentleness, even sentimentality. Two inscriptions written by admirers and attached to "Willows in Autumn" confirm that he adopted various names in his youth and that he retired to Jiao hu in his eighties.

In general, Huang Shen’s art developed from a meticulous style similar to that of his teacher, through an intermediary stage of relaxation, even lyricism, and finally to the spontaneous and untrammelled mode seen in "Willows in Autumn," although some of his styles may have co-existed. He mixed the refined with the vulgar and, in historical subjects, frequently manipulated stock figures. His early landscape paintings, such as "Reminiscence from the Han River" (1729), show elements of the dense and detailed style of Guo Xi, but such influences became increasingly attenuated and then vanished altogether in the face of a far bolder approach.

-Ju-hsi Chou


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