Dignity, sympathy, participation

Sympathetic observation

This late Yuan or early Ming painting of an itinerant peddler is a compendium of objects representing customs, curiosities and pleasures. On an emotional level, the representation of the innocent yearning of a child for 'the things of this world' contrasts with the measured gaze of adults. For contemporary viewers, the abundant sensuality and social observation would have been enjoyed within a cautionary Confucian or Buddhist moral perspective that denied mere materialistic and pleasure-centred values. This contrast of pleasure and philosophical negation resembles the vanitas paintings of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Holland and the Netherlands where flowers, foods, musical instruments and rare objects evoke the transience of life, while the certainty of death is often recalled by the presence of a skull within the ensemble (see for instance, Jan Jansz TRECK’s Vanitas Still Life (1652) in the National Gallery, London.)

Within the Chinese tradition, this work is a large-scale and mature example of a pictorial genre that began several hundred years earlier, the techniques having been consolidated in the Northern Song Painting Academy. There are important Song examples in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Cleveland Museum, Palace Museum (Beijing), and National Palace Museum (Taipei). A related genre is the ‘riverside scrolls’ of the same period, such as the outstanding Qingming Riverside scroll of ZHANG Zeduan (張擇端, active ca. 12th century) with its detailed representations of daily life in the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng.

Despite rich colour and a wealth of detail, this peddler painting is graceful in composition and brushwork. Unlike many coloured images from the early Ming, it has not been restored by later additions of pigment that tend to flatten and make heavy. It thus offers a rare glimpse into the visual sensibility and taste of literati collectors of the epoch.

 Anonymous (14th century)
The Knickknack Peddler
Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk
129.5 x 115.6 cm