Gai Qi (1774-1829)
Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 32 1⁄4 x 13 1⁄2 inches
Inscription: Yuhuwaishi, Gai Qi.
Artist’s seal: Gai Boyun shi, square, relief
The human figure had become a popular subject for painting in China by 1800. This was true not only in the city of Yangzhou, where Huang Shen (1687–after 1768) and Min Zheng (1730-after 1788) had gained fame several decades earlier for their boldly brushed likenesses, but also in Hangzhou as well as the capital, where Yu Ji (1738-1823) was known for his refined depictions of ladies and scholars. Demand for works in this genre reach such proportions in the later 18th century that an aphorism often quoted was, “Paint portraits for gold, paint flowers for silver, paint landscapes and become a beggar.” This trend may in part account for the success of Gai Qi, whose portrayals of “beauties” as well as Buddhist and Daoist beings brought him wide reknown. His greatest achievement was his illustrations of Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng), a project for which he was inspired by Tang Yin’s pictures created to accompany the drama The West Chamber (Xixiangji). Gai Qi’s fifty-five figure paintings employing baimiao (plain outline) method are faithful in every detail of appearance, manner, and temperament to the characters described in Cao Xueqin’s classic novel. The illustrations were later transferred to woodblock form and in 1879 printed as a book entitled Hongloumeng tuyong.
Gai Qi’s family moved from their homeland near China’s western border (probably modern-day Xinjiang province) to Songjiang in Jiangsu when his grandfather was appointed to official service there.* Said to be a gifted youth, Gai Qi wrote poetry and excelled in writing small regular (xiaokai) script in the fluid manner of Yun Shouping (1633-1690). Seal carving was also one of his pastimes, though the quality of his work in this field never matched that of the other arts. Besides figures, he painted orchids and other flowers, bamboo, and landscapes. He mingled with prominent literary and artistic personalities of the day, among them Qian Du (1763- 1844) and Chen Hongshou (Mansheng, 1768-1822). Gai Qi also used the names Qixiang and Yuhuwaishi.
Each of this artist’s depictions of women presents a unique character suggested by the subtlety of a pose or facial expression. Most of his early figure paintings were executed in thin lines of even width, based on the baimiao technique of Li Gonglin (1040-1106). Later Gai Qi’s brush loosened to produce a more spontaneous style in which lines vary in breadth and ink tones.
Some works display the artist’s decorative flare, as in this painting of a young woman holding a cat and standing before a banana tree and yellow rose bush. The close-in focus includes only the upper half of the figure, a mode that gained popularity during the 18th century. The brilliant red of the lady’s short coat is offset by the snow-white fur of her feline pet. Nearly filling the space around her, the banana tree grows up the left side of the scene, slightly to the rear of the figure. One of its leaves bends down to the right, forming an arch over the lady’s head and echoing the downward slope of her shoulders. Establishing still deeper space, the tall rosebush blooms behind the banana tree. The woman’s hair, pulled loosely over her ears, is rendered with fine lines over light ink wash. Executed with exceptional control, these lines seem to grow and fall with the suppleness of natural hair. A tinge of pale blue in the white of the figure’s eyes further enlivens her face, and her hand is gracefully poised on the cat’s head in a gesture of gentle affection.
This woman appears charming and mild, but her casual manner, along with the bright hues of her clothing and the plants as well as the comical countenance of the cat, endows the painting with a lighthearted, cheerful tone. Her form is integrated with the other pictorial elements by this mood, as well as by the consistency of the artist’s line work. The fluid lines of her clothing are one with those defining the huge banana leaves and delicate roses. A painting of this kind would have adorned the walls in the inner chamber of a 19th century home, and would have been appreciated both for its artistic achievement and its didactic value as a portrait of feminine elegance and moral wholesomeness.
This essay is adapted from Tsao, Jung Ying, Chinese Paintings of the Middle Qing Dynasty. San Francisco: San Francisco Graphic Society, in association with the University of Washington Press, 1987.
* The name Gai is a sinicization of an originally non-Han Chinese surname.