'Pheasants and Peonies' Ink, colour and gold on silk, Hanging scroll

明  山雉牡丹  設色絹本  立軸

The scroll is tall and narrow, formed of two pieces of silk each of one loom width, joined above the second large peony from the bottom. The scene shows a cock and a hen pheasant perched on rockwork, gazing at each other. From the sloping ground below the rocks and from among the rocks themselves grow several tree peonies, bearing buds and full blooms in different colours, ranging from pink to light purple and (perhaps, as the colour is fugitive and is now absent) yellow. The blooms with full remaining colour exhibit a remarkable control of gradated washes, rendering them extremely lifelike. The two character signature, 邊魯 “Bian Lu”, most likely a  later addition, is inscribed in kaishu at the lower right margin.

Christie’s New York, 19th March 2014, lot 1306 (cover lot)
Marshall Galleries, Cleveland, Ohio, 1978

A small number of paintings are attributed to Bian Lu (d. 1356), a specialist in bird and flower painting. Bian was a Uighur, from Xinjiang who migrated to Hebei, and subsequently became an official in the Censorate in Nanjing. He died when the army of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, took the city. The two most important surviving paintings generally accepted as by Bian are “Peacock and Hollyhock”, painted in ink and colour on silk, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and “Magpie, Bamboo and Rock”, in ink on paper, in the Tianjin Municipal Art Museum. The two paintings show little similarity. The former is stately, formal and richly coloured, with rocks depicted in outline and ink wash, while the latter is in monochrome ink, swiftly painted and energetic, with rocks built up by modelling strokes. Whatever the realism of the claims of these paintings to be by Bian Lu, it is clear that the present work, apart - perhaps – from the modelling of the rocks in the Tianjin picture, is stylistically dissimilar to both.

Judging from the prominent red ear-patch and the white band around the neck of the male, the birds depicted appear to be the male and female of one of the subspecies of the common or ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) native to China. As early as the Tang dynasty the pheasant, with its impressive plumage and tail, was a popular bird for artists to depict; and this popularity was amplified during the Song dynasty when symbolic links with the ideal scholar were noted, such as the similarity between the scholar’s cap and the pheasant’s crest, or between the beautiful feathers and the scholar’s literary talents.
Pheasants are depicted with several kinds of flowers, but peonies are certainly the most popular, symbolizing wealth and honour. The peonies in the present painting are superbly painted in the early style, with large many-petalled blooms coloured in gradated wash to more deeply-coloured centres, shown from different angles, some almost entirely hidden behind foliage.
The precise date of this important painting remains uncertain. For the present the best we can say is that the style, especially of the peonies, appears to suggest a date in the Ming dynasty, with a very slender possibility that, like the artist whose name is inscribed upon it, it could date to the late Yuan period.

Dimensions: Dimensions: 193 x 57 cm, 76 x 22 ½ inches

Date: Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Bearing the signature “Bian Lu”

Stock No. 2010

Price: On Request