Chinese Traditional Painting - Baishi

oil painting

Qi Baishi - the Great Artist

Qi Baishi (1863-1957) is one of the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists. His life shows that he had achieved success by combining talent with hard work. He was born in a peasant family in Xiangtan County, Hunan Province. At the age of eight he went to school, but a year later, he quit because of illness.

At home he helped with herding cattle, cutting firewood, and doing odd jobs on the farm. At age eleven he was sent to learn carpentry.

Under the guidance of his master he made dowry furniture and carved decorative woodwork. Through his work he got to know some local scholars. One of them, Hu Shenyuan, offered to teach him painting and poetry. During this period Qi earned his living by painting portraits and selling his works. Gradually, he developed a reputation as an artist as well as a carpenter. At age thirty, together with several young men, he founded the Longshan Poetry Society.

In those years, he devoted himself to poetry, calligraphy, and seal carving. Although he admitted he was a versatile artist, his own criteria of his success placed poetry first, seal-carving second, calligraphy third, and painting last.

From 1902 to 1916, Qi toured the country five times, and he left his footmarks in Beijing, Guilin, Guangzhou, Hainan Island, Hongkong, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing. The trips broadened his vision and modified his style. In 1917 he settled down in Beijing. There he met many artists and scholars, and made friends with Chen Shizeng (1876-1923). Chen advised him not to imitate early masters and to form his own style. Qi took this advice and decided to reform his approach. He integrated his own creativity with the expressive skills used in folk art and the painting techniques of famous artists such as Xu Wei, Zhu Da and Shi Tao of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Through long years of practice, Qi Baishi evolved a distinctive, personal style. The subjects of his painting were wide and various, and the flowers, birds, fish, prawns, and insects he painted are most admired by his public. In order to improve his technique of painting prawns, he raised some at home and frequently observed their movements. He wrote in his diary about how he had changed his method of painting prawns: "At first my prawns bore a reasonable similarity, then they became even more realistic, and finally light and dark colours became properly contrasted. These are the three changes." Qi Baishi was able to portray the same object in either the xieyi or the gongbi style. When he painted a dragonfly in a detailed manner, he even drew the veins in its wings. When he adopted a bold, free style, he used only a few dry, expressive strokes to form it. Dragonflies done in either method are realistic and lively. What is fascinating about his work is that in some pictures both methods are used. For example, insects done in the gongbi style and flowers in the xieyi style appear in the same picture, and there is perfect harmony between them.

Qi Baishi was a man of noble character. Once, while China was still under the rule of the Qing Dynasty, he declined an offer to serve Empress Dowager Ci Xi. He did paintings and wrote poems mocking corrupt officials, greedy merchants, and shameful traitors. During the Anti-Japanese War he refused to sell his works to officers of the Japanese army of occupation.

Revised June 2, 2011