Irony, play and compassion

Sympathetic but unflinching lines – literati portraits

By contrast, WANG Shugu 王樹穀 (1649-after 1733) produced genre portraits of character types, matched to brief calligraphic inscriptions. They have polish and flair, at once professional but also with a touch of scholarly flavour. Not really serious work, but like a wine that surprises in its freshness and good value. The painting is done sharply, cleanly, with flourishes of the brush that are there to seduce the viewer with their verve. The ink is black and lustrous, and bites the silk exquisitely.

Wang's notions of character are essentially clichés, with poses and gestures that have roots in public appearances, decorum, theatre. We find a military leader with short limbs that concentrate his energy in a taut, armoured trunk; a poet in studied casualness, wine cup in hand, gazing at the calligraphy on our page; while the focused elegance of a Buddhist deity contrasts to mischievous waifs.

At other times, Wang provided models for mass-produced woodblock prints on similar themes


  Wang Shugu 王樹穀 (1649-after 1733)
Historical figures (dated 1726/ 1727)
Album of 10 leaves, ink on silk
20.6 x 32.4 cm
Private collection

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