The Three Purities: Plum Blossoms, Bamboo, and Narcissus

Artist: Xi Gang 奚岡 (1746-1803)
Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, 1788
Ink and color on paper
H x W (image): 120.6 x 33 cm (47 1/2 x 13 in)
Credit Line
Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll (mounted on panel)

bamboo, China, flower, Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911)
Provenance research underway.

This painting is a variation on the "friends of winter" theme. Bamboo and plum blossoms are present, but a rock, signifying constancy of purpose, has replaced the usual pine. And the early blooming narcissus, sometimes regarded as a fourth friend of winter, has also joined the group. Each subject is executed in a contrasting style of brushwork drawn from the conventions of ink painting established in the late-Southern Song and Yuan dynasties (13th-14th century).

The weathered rock is modeled with short, quick strokes and dots; the narcissus is painted in the fluid "double-outline" (shuanggou) style; the bamboo is rendered in blue ink using the direct "boneless" (mogu) style; and the delicate plum blossoms are done in a simple outline style accented with short strokes and tiny dots. While the composition is entirely constructed around the symbolic associations of its subject matter, the artistic center of this work lies in the skillful balancing of these different brushwork styles.

As a painter, Xi Gang concentrated mainly on landscapes and botanical subjects set in traditional arrangements, as seen here. At upper right, he inscribed an evocative couplet on the painting in standard script, which describes the four winter friends: "Suffused in brilliant rays of light, they have the color of ice and jade." Xi Gang painted this work in his Winter Flower Studio during the hot summer of 1788, so perhaps he chose this chilly theme as a convenient way to cool off.

Published References
  • Julia Murray. A Decade of Discovery: Selected Acquisitions 1970-1980. Exh. cat. Washington, 1979. cat. 35, pp. 44-45.
  • Thomas Lawton, Joseph Chang, Stephen Allee. Brushing the Past: Later Chinese Calligraphy from the Gift of Robert Haftield Ellsworth. Exh. cat. Washington. p. 77.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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