Along with five other works, this gift come to the museum from the estate of Anna C. Chennault (1923–2018). Madame Chennault was the wife of General Claire Chennault (1893–1958), commander of the famous Flying Tigers group during World War II.
A large overarching plum tree, with a proliferation of white blossoms covering every branch and twig, rises along one side of the painting. A contrasting thicket of red plum blossoms fills the foreground. Their color echoes that of the red-crowned cranes, with their long, pointed beaks and skinny knob-kneed legs, wading through the shallow water or standing on the shore. Blooming in the harshness of winter, the plum is not only a symbol of beauty but also of fortitude, resilience, and purity of purpose. The crane is a token of longevity. Taken together, these visual references offer a conventional wish for health and long life.
Listed among the most accomplished painters of the late Shanghai School, Yu Li was a principal disciple of the school’s leading master, Ren Yi (1840–1896). Ren promoted an exuberant manner of painting, one characterized by loose brushwork, moist color washes, and dense compositions. He generally favored popular decorative themes with large-scale figures set in a shallow picture frame to enhance a sense of intimacy. These same qualities are evident in this painting by his close follower. Painted in 1919, this is a mature work by Yu Li. Executed with confident familiarity and practiced ease, the free brushwork, light color palette, and balanced composition are typical of his late-period style.
According to the donor, this painting was a personal gift from Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) to Anna C. Chennault, who was known in Chinese as Chen Xiangmei. Her given name means “fragrant plum blossoms.” The two first met during Deng Xiaoping’s historic visit to the United States in January 1979. Two years later, in early January 1981, Madame Chennault helped to promote friendly relations by visiting the People’s Republic of China as an unofficial envoy of president-elect Ronald Reagan.