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Yun Shouping

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Yun Shouping
Ch'ing Dynasty painter, poet and calligrapher
Chinese, (1633–1690) Yun Shouping; Yun Shou-p'ing. zi: Weida, Zhengshu hao: Nantian Dongyuan
Chinese painter, poet and calligrapher. One of the Six Great Painters of the early Qing dynasty (1644–1911), he is acknowledged as the founder of a school of painting based in the Changzhou region, sometimes referred to as the Yun school. He was the most talented member of a prominent family renowned for its artistic talent. By virtue of his contribution to the genre of flower-and-bird painting, he achieved recognition as an important, innovative master who was an equal of the revered artists of the Song dynasty (960–1299). Though he was not a court painter, his style was designated the orthodox court style of the Qing dynasty.

Brought up in a literati environment, Yun studied with his father, Yun Richu, and according to legend, by the age of eight he could recite literature. He followed his father, who had become a monk, and elder brothers to Jianning, Fujian Province, where they joined the Ming loyalists in resisting the Manchurian troops. When the Manchus captured Jianning, Yun Richu escaped, believing that his sons were dead. In fact, one son was killed but Yun Shouping was taken prisoner and adopted into the family of Chen Jin, the conquering general who had no sons. After Chen was assassinated in 1652, Yun accompanied the body home and serendipitously met his father at a monastery. Yun’s adopted mother was persuaded to release him and he returned with his father to their home where, at the age of 20, he began scholarly studies in earnest. Around 1661 he stopped using his original name of Ge and adopted one of his hao, Shouping. Even during his lifetime, the saga of Yun’s life was used as the subject of poetry and plays.

Yun Shouping described two ‘roads’ or approaches to flower painting (xieshenq or ‘life-sketching’). There was the outlined flower-and-leaf style with meticulous colouring, after Huang quan, and the style without ink outlines that used only colour, of which he considered Xu Chongsi (10th century) the master. Yun felt the latter style ‘captured the impression of nature’ with an appearance of utmost beauty, unlike a ‘carved’ (laboured) painting (Mingshi, p. 168). Because this style had no structural ink lines, it was called mogu (‘boneless’). Not only did Yun follow this tradition, but he also made several substantial contributions to it with innovative techniques for washes, texture dots, the application of pigments and colour harmony.

Yun Shouping’s writings are filled wth discussions of the great artists of the past that reveal a tremendous breadth of understanding and appreciation of their work. While most of his writings concern landscape painting, close friends of Yun said he gave up that genre in deference to his friend, the famous landscape artist Wang Hui. Although Yun Shouping did paint landscapes throughout his life, his fame clearly rests upon his superb achievements in the genre of flower-and-bird painting. In a biography translated by Osvald Sirén, Yun was described as a man ‘of an open, generous and refined character. When he met someone who understood him he could work a whole month for the man, but if it were not the right kind of person, he would not let him have a single flower or leaf even for a hundred taels of gold. Consequently, he always remained poor, even though he had been active as a painter for scores of years’ (Sirén, p. 193). Yun’s poverty extended to his grave: his funeral expenses were borne by his friend Wang Hui.

-James Robinson


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