The Orchid in Chinese Painting

Coinciding with the National Museum of Natural History’s annual orchid show, the Sackler will present twenty works related to orchids in Chinese painting, ranging in date from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.

The cymbidium orchid (Chinese: lan) has been cultivated in China for hundreds of years. Since the time of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), the cymbidium has been associated with principled, moral gentlemen whose talent and integrity go unrecognized by the powers that be. Over the centuries, various literary and philosophical works attributed other virtues to the orchid, such as friendship, loyalty, and patriotism. Because of these associations, members of the scholar-official class came to identify strongly with the flower.

The cymbidium orchid became an independent subject of Chinese painting during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Artists created meticulous depictions of the orchid employing outline and color. From the thirteenth century on, most scholar artists chose to paint the leaves and blossoms calligraphically, using only ink. Following the Mongol conquest of the Song in 1279 and the founding of the Yuan dynasty, the “ink orchid” took on strong overtones of loyalty to the fallen regime.

The subject also held appeal for certain groups that flourished at the margins of society. Monk artists belonging to the Chan school of Buddhism, for example, appropriated the ink orchid for their own purposes during the fourteenth century. Similarly, while the plant remained perennially popular among scholar artists, during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties (16th–17th century) the ink orchid also became a mainstay for a coterie of renowned courtesan painters, many of whom formed romantic liaisons with prominent scholars of the time.

Twelve of the fifteen paintings on view in The Orchid in Chinese Painting belong to the ink orchid tradition. Two scholar’s rocks and three ceramic bowls used to hold the blossoming bulbs will also be displayed.