About this artwork
Together with those of a riverscape, rocks, flowers, and branches of cedar and bamboo, the magpie is one of six images painted by Yao Shou along the length of this handscroll. Its portrayal represents a venerable genre of painting known as “bird-and-flower,” whose finest artists had achieved extraordinary refinement and realism by the eleventh century. Yao Shou’s vision, however, was far more personal if seemingly simpler. He described the magpie almost solely in varied tonalities of black ink; the branches are accented with darker twigs and dotted leaves but possess little sense of spatiality; and the bamboo leaves are rendered in freely executed strokes of pale blue.
Yao Shou accompanied the magpie—as he did its companion images—with an original poem written in his characteristically elegant cursive script and signed with his courtesy name, Gongshou:
In the bright moonlight, why does the
magpie circle three times before
During sunny days, it sings on the green
I also practice divination to find the place
where the magpie often roosts.
It stays on the rooftop of the old master’s
house, and the stars arrive late.
The title and artist’s biography combine to add poignancy to this work. “Pillars of the Country” refers to the vital role of intellectuals in supporting China’s integrity. Almost thirty years earlier, gratuitous slander had driven Yao Shou from a prestigious career in government service to retirement as a painter, calligrapher, collector, and scholar — all pursuits of a traditional literatus. Now advanced in years, he expressed his cultivated ideals in both the willful spontaneity of his brushwork and the informed allusions in his inscription, adapting each line from that of a celebrated poem from centuries past.
As documented by several seals impressed on its surface, this painting once held an honored place in the collection of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95), China’s most passionate imperial collector.
- Currently Off View
- Arts of Asia
- Yao Shou
- Pillars of the Country
- Handscroll; ink and color on paper
- Buckingham Fund