Sakyamuni Washing the Elephant

明十七世紀     釋迦牟尼洗象圖

The painting shows a scene of a White Elephant standing in a clearing  beneath two large trees, one a pine tree, the other perhaps a cypress. Its head, wearing a simple red and green halter, is lowered and turned to its left. The trunk is curled around a bundle of reed-like plants. From his long, narrow eyes he regards two figures standing to his left. One, tipping up a blue-glazed pear-shaped bottle, is identifiable as the Buddha Sakyamuni, standing barefoot on a large open lotus blossom. He wears a voluminous red robe over a white inner garment. His bearded and moustached face bears a smiling expression. His hair is drawn back and secured with a circlet. Beside him stands a figure wearing a pale orange robe, his hands clasped in obeisance. On the other side of the elephant, crouched, a figure of foreign appearance in a blue robe scrubs at the wrinkly hide, a large shallow bowl of water by his side.

From the collection of Emil Hultmark (1872-1943), a Swedish art historian and patron of the arts
Stockholms Auktionsverk, 27th May 2011, lot 3408

Emil Hultmark’s collection, Stockholm 1942, at Kungl. Akademien för de fria konsterna (The Royal Academy for the Liberal Arts), no. 703
The National Museum exhibition catalogue number 26, Äldre Kinesiskt konsthantverk ur Svenska samlingar (Exhibition of Older Chinese Arts from Swedish collections), 1928, no. 572

A painting from the Harvard Art Museums, object number 1935.55, dated to the sixteenth century, shows a similar scene. Entitled Buddha Sakyamuni with a Staff Overseeing the Washing of the White Elephant, it depicts Sakyamuni standing to one side while the washing is carried out. Similarly,  in a painting in the Art Institute of Chicago, entitled 'Washing the White Elephant', accession number 1943.1147, the red-robed figure, here identified simply as a monk, oversees proceedings. It is interesting to note, therefore, that in the present painting the Sakyamuni figure, whose divine status is not in doubt as indicated by the lotus he stands on, is happy to be directly involved, pouring water from his bottle.

By tradition, this scene was first rendered as far back as the Liang dynasty, by Zhang Sengyou, and was then transmitted via the Tang dynasty painter Yan Liben (c.600- 674). Other paintings with the theme of “Washing the Elephant” are mentioned in the Xuanhe Huapu, the Northern Song imperial painting catalogue, and while none have survived to the present, it is reasonable to surmise that some of them were still extant during the Ming dynasty to act as models for later Ming and Qing artists.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a painting by Chen Zi (1632-1711), accession number 1976.91, depicting the same theme, that mentions in an inscription that Ming dynasty scholars saw the subject as a play on the phrase saoxiang (掃 象) which can be read as “sweeping the elephant” or “sweeping away illusions”. We have no reason to doubt this, but it is very possible that this pun is a fortuitous back-formation and that the artists of the no-longer extant versions of the subject had a deeper motivation for rendering the subject.

Dimensions: 68 x 55cm, 26 ¾ x 21 ⅝ inches

Date: Late Ming dynasty, 17th century

Stock No. 1784

Price: On Request