The Divine Garden: Flower Paintings in Chinese Art

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    Shen Zhuo (active 1831-1901), Peach Blossom SpringChina, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 1834, Fan painting; ink and colors on gold-flecked paper, Purchase, 1996 (8094.1)

June 24, 2010 - October 17, 2010
Maurice J. Sullivan Gallery (16)

Exhibition Overview


Flowers have long been a prominent motif in Chinese painting and literature, and the connections between these two artistic genres can perhaps be best seen in the many paintings of flowers inspired by prominent poets and their writings. For example, the great poet Tao Qian’s (365-427) passion for chrysanthemums was well known, and connoisseurs immediately would have thought of Tao Qian when they saw a painting of these flowers. Blooming in the autumn, chrysanthemums were a traditional symbol of vigor in old age, and this significance was deepened by the life of Tao, who eschewed the political upheaval of his times and spent his elder years in reclusion, despite the prominent political influence of his ancestors.
Tao Qian is also closely associated with peach blossoms, due to his famous poem “Peach Blossom Spring.” In the poem, a fisherman follows a stream, the banks of which are covered in peach blossoms, until he reaches a cave hiding a secret community that fled from war centuries earlier, living a utopian existence completely unknown to the outside world:
The flowering grass tells them what month it is,
They know the autumn wind by the bare branches;
For even without a calendar to show you,
The four seasons still add up to a year.
(Poetry and Prose of the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, 1986)
The fisherman returns to the normal world and alerts local officials, but the community can no longer be found. Written at a time of warfare and turmoil (north China fell to the nomadic Xianbei in 386, and the country was not reunified until 581), this story had parallels not only to Tao Qian’s life, but to the lives of several generations of political officials and intelligentsia, and it remains a popular subject in Chinese art to this day.
This exhibition includes paintings inspired by Tao Qian’s Peach Blossom Spring by Shen Zhuo (active 1831-1901) and Wang Hui (1632-1717), together with a recently donated album of flower paintings by the late Qing dynasty official and artist Tao Rong (1872-1927), and a selection of porcelains and jades. ⎯ Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art