Image: Water and Ink Flowing with Feeling: The Painting and Calligraphy of Chen Chun
Title: Selections

‧Lake Rock and Blossoms
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Album leaf (folding fan), ink and color on paper, 15.3 x 42.3 cm

Chen Chun specialized in flower painting, and later generations grouped him with another later master, Xu Wei (1521-1593), referring to them as “Qingteng and Baiyang.” Together they represented the “sketching-ideas” style of Wu school flower painting.

This folding fan mounted as an album leaf depicts a lake rock with grasses and blossoms. Though the flowers were touched with cinnabar, and the rock was done only in ink washes without texture strokes. An early work, it was painted by Chen in 1514 at the Chinese age of 32. The style is pure and refined, exhibiting a delicate, endearing quality that reveals Wen Zhengming’s (1470-1559) influence. On it are several complementary poems by others; only Wen Zhengming’s is out of place, suggesting it was added at a slightly later date.

This is the twentieth leaf from the mao album of “Ming Fan Painting and Calligraphy.”

‧Shadows of Plum Blossoms
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Album leaf (folding fan), ink and colors on paper, 17.1 x 48.7 cm

Chen Chun once wrote that since childhood he enjoyed sketching from life, searching for the ultimate in colors, but “in recent years I have become older…and my monochrome ink more cursive.” This suggests that Chen later turned more to ink using a direct, unbridled technique.

This folding fan mounted as an album leaf consists of colors depicting a branch of pink plum blossoms. Using “boneless” washes for the blossoms, the brushwork is lively and beautifully refined. Though the colors have faded, it makes them appear quite light and elegant, taking nothing away from the lofty purity. Chen’s inscription says that “jade buds” of the plum rush forth in winter. Despite the cold, one can appreciate them.

This is the seventh leaf from the mao album of “Ming Fan Painting and Calligraphy.”

‧Crape Myrtle
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Album leaf (folding fan), ink and colors on paper, 17.8 x 48 cm

This folding fan mounted as an album leaf depicts a branch of blossoming crape myrtle bending into the composition above the slope. The inscription by Chen Chun describes how the riot of blossoms makes for a brocade of colors. The arrangement is divided in half by the main motif, the brushwork done mostly with a slanted tip expressing beauty with its sharpness. The blossoms, leaves, and branch were done in “boneless” wash methods, the brushwork restrained and the colors pure and beautiful, much in the delicate style of Wen Zhengming’s (1470-1559) bird-and-flower painting. Though undated, Chen did mostly ink “sketching-ideas” works in later years, so this perhaps was from around the age of 50.

This is the twentieth leaf from the yuan album of “Ming Fan Paintings.”

‧Empress Rose
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Album leaf (folding fan), ink and colors on paper, 19.3 x 52.6 cm

This painting depicts empress rose blossoms using the “sketching-ideas” method of “boneless” washes. The leaves in colors are all steady and purely elegant, the outlining of the branches done with cursive brushwork, making this common and unassuming flower appear dynamic and lively.

This folding fan mounted as an album leaf was done in 1527, when Chen Chun 45 by Chinese reckoning. The fan painting features a five-character poem by Wang Chong (1494-1533) and a seven-character one by Wang Zhideng (1535-1612), both famous literati of the Suzhou area.

This is the 23rd leaf from the yuan album of “Ming Fan Paintings.”

‧Blossoms in Color
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 188 x 96.9 cm

The brushwork and coloring here are quite refined. In the poem, Chen wrote that despite the summer heat that makes days seem long, blossoms burst forth in colors so that the heat is bearable. Thus, we know that Chen has depicted here a scene of flowers on a hot summer day.

Behind the garden lake rock is a cluster of five different flowering plants, including the jasmine, rose, lily, carnation, and red ixora. The flowers were done in the “boneless” wash method, with the white jasmine and lily in hooked outlines. The delicately arranged scene features elegantly warm colors that differ from the “sketching ideas” style of unbridled brushwork that Chen customarily used in his later years, suggesting that this work is probably from before the age of 50.

Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 58.4 x 30.5 cm

This work depicts a broken branch of jasmine blossoms in light monochrome ink. The stem from bottom to top has branches with flowers and leaves radiating left and right. The layers of ink are fine and marvelous. The upper part of the composition is filled with characters written by Chen Chun himself in semi-cursive script.

Compared with his paintings of flowers in color, the brushwork here is obviously simple and straightforward. The outlining of the blossoms and leaves employs calligraphic methods in a very cursive manner that looks almost careless but still conveys the idea of the subject’s naturalness and liveliness. This monochrome ink painting on light yellowish-ochre sutra paper brings out the subject’s softness. The work was done in 1541 at the Chinese age of 59.

‧Kunlun Rock
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 80.1 x 34.8 cm

This monochrome ink painting depicts the simple scene of a potted stand with a miniature scene of water, rock, small tree, and plants. Despite the brevity of the brushwork, nothing is missing from their depiction or texture. The composition is very stable and the brushwork quite powerful with almost no weak strokes.

The method of scorched ink to dot the lichen reflects the influence of Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and can be traced back to the style of Wang Meng (1308-1385). And the style of Chen’s calligraphy in his inscription at the top also can be traced back to the manner of Shen Zhou. According to the inscription, this work was done in 1543, when Chen was 61 by Chinese reckoning. It was in gratitude to a friend for sending a potted arrangement to him.

‧Sketches from Life
Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Handscroll, ink on paper, 34.9 x 253.3 cm

This “sketching ideas” work in monochrome ink depicts such flowers and plants as the peony, orchid, bamboo, jasmine, lotus, narcissus, and camellia. All depicted in the “broken stem” style, they are spread out in the composition using fresh and lively brushwork. Leaves and blossoms alternate between light and dark shades of ink, while the lines of the leaves and stems turn with natural ease, the entire work emitting a fresh and lofty purity expressing the artist’s personal manner.

Starting from his middle years, Chen Chun’s thought underwent a major change as he chose to avoid fame and wealth, lodging his sentiments in nature instead. The purity and freedom of his later art testifies to this shift. This scroll was done in 1538 at the Chinese age of 56.

Chen Chun (1483-1544), Ming dynasty
Album leaf, ink on paper, 30.1 x 48.2 cm

Chen Chun in his youth studied the painting of Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) masters, but after his middle years turned to the styles of Mi Fu (1051-1108) and Gao Kegong (1248-1310), painting landscapes with directness and wet ink in his own manner. He also studied under the master Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), who humbly called himself Chen’s “elementary” teacher, admiring his skill in painting and calligraphy.

This album by Chen Chun was done in 1540 at the Chinese age of 58. The frontispiece of two characters, “Flowing [with] feeling,” expresses Chen’s pursuit of simplicity. The landscapes combine the virtues of various masters. The brushwork is unbridled and succinct, revealing a light and leisurely aspect of literati life. This type of “sketching ideas” landscape in ink was an innovation in literati painting then.