Childhood is a phase we all have gone through, and each and every joy of our youth is an indelible part of our collective memory. "Children playing" in scenes of joyous fun is a subject in Chinese painting that became popular in the Song dynasty. Images of children appear in Chinese arts and crafts as early as the Qin and Han dynasties, with examples in painting dating back to the Six Dynasties period. However, paintings focusing mainly on children playing only began to emerge in the Tang dynasty, developing later to fruition in the Song and Yuan dynasties. For this special exhibition, two masterpieces from the National Palace Museum collection, "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" and "Children at Play on a Winter Day," have been selected to illuminate this endearing theme in Chinese painting.
Both "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" and "Children at Play on a Winter Day" are hanging scrolls depicting scenes of children having fun in garden settings. On the right side of "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" is a tall garden rock and hibiscus as a pair of children hunch over a stool and concentrate on their game of spinning dates. On the left side of "Children at Play on a Winter Day" are garden rocks, plum blossoms, bamboo, and camellia as a pair of children play and tease a kitten. One painting is set in autumn and the other in winter, both featuring a boy and a girl. In "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden," the girl with her hair tied in two knots appears at the moment of explaining the game of spinning dates to the little boy. The girl carrying a colored banner with her hair tied up in "Children at Play on a Winter Day" seems to lead the boy holding the red string. Both paintings not only convey the innocence of children, they also emphasize their harmonious relationship. Despite their tender age, the static and active portrayals in these two paintings express a deeper sense of peace and harmony, signifying a unique branch in the overall development of raucous children playing.
These two paintings reveal not only a firm grasp of minute details concerning the children, even the garden rocks and flowers are all exceptionally precise. The two black lacquer stools with floral motifs in "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden," including such toys and children’s objects as the figures-on-horseback spinner, Eight Treasures checker, and red-lacquered Buddhist pagoda and two bowls, are all rendered with the greatest finesse. "Children at Play on a Winter Day" also reveals a firm and lifelike grasp of the kitten’s fur and pose. In terms of authorship, however, neither painting has the signature or seal of the artist, but the label for "Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" gives the name of Su Hanchen, while the traditional attribution of "Children at Play on a Winter Day" is to an anonymous Song artist. Nonetheless, the style of both works is quite similar, being generally considered as part of a set. For this special exhibition, microscope photography confirms that the quality of their silk is also very close, indicating that these two works are indeed closely related. Not much is known about Su Hanchen, but he was active as a court painter in the Northern and Southern Song period and famous in painting histories for his skill at depicting children.
"Children Playing in an Autumn Garden" is classified as a restricted painting by the National Palace Museum, so its display is limited to forty days and thus on exhibit only until May 10.