IntroductionHua Yan's "Album of Sketches from Life" is a fascinating masterpiece of Qing dynasty painting entrusted to the National Palace Museum from the Lanqian Shanguan collection. It is actually mounted as two separate albums, each containing twelve leaves. As for Hua Yan's biography, he originally went by the name Desong, later changing it to Yan, and had the style name Qiuyue. He was born into a family of commoner status in Shanghang, Fujian, in 1682 during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. Since Shanghang was once known as Xinluo, Hua Yan took the self-styled sobriquet Xinluo Shanren ("Mountain Man of Xinluo") to reflect his memories of home despite elsewhere living for many years.
When he was a youth, Hua Yan's family could not afford to continue providing him with an education, so he left home at 22 for Hangzhou to seek his fortunes. Evidently coming to the attention of local scholar-officials, Hua Yan was influenced by them and devoted himself to poetry, painting, and calligraphy, eventually becoming an all-around artist with considerable literary talent. Over the following decades, he traveled frequently between the cities of Hangzhou and Yangzhou, relying on his skills with the brush and ink to make a living. Hua Yan worked ceaselessly in the arts, even up to his death in Hangzhou in 1756 during the Qianlong reign. His literary works were collected into and survived as Anthology of Leaving the Impure. In painting Hua Yan first was influenced by the styles of such artists as Yun Shouping (1633-1690), Zhu Da (ca. 1626-1705), Shitao (1642-1707), and Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), afterwards forging a new style of his own to successfully create a personal manner. Hua Yan's mentor, Xu Fengji (1655-1740), once praised him as "combining refinement and substance, he also was able to extend beyond the norms." Hua Yan has also been considered part of the Yangzhou School movement, admired for his striving at innovations in painting.
"Album of Sketches from Life" is undated, but judging from a combination of evidence, such as painting technique, style of calligraphy, and use of seals, it is most likely Hua Yan's late work from after the age of sixty. The album leaves present a wide range of figural, bird, insect, animal, and aquatic subject matter. Interspersed and apparently unconnected, the forms depicted here nonetheless all appear quite humorous and animated with great expression. Truly encompassing and illustrating a spectrum of themes, the forms fully reveal the artist's own personal disposition, in contrast to a mere pursuit to capture the appearance of things. The two albums in their entirety are being specially presented in Gallery 208 in the National Palace Museum's main exhibition building, offering audiences a uniquely rich and dazzling aesthetic experience from the brush of Hua Yan.