Couplet in clerical script

Artist: Wu Xizai 吳熙載 (1799-1870)
Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, 1850s
Pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper
H x W (image, each): 177.2 x 39.5 cm (69 3/4 x 15 9/16 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scrolls (pair)

China, clerical script, couplet, Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection

To 1997
Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (born 1929), New York City, to 1997

From 1997
Freer Gallery of Art, given by Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in 1997 [1]


[1] The total gift from the Ellsworth collection consists of nearly three-hundred objects (F1997.42-.85 and F1998.83-294). All Chinese calligraphy in the proposed gift were published in Mr. Ellsworth's Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950 vol. 3 (New York: Random House, 1986) (see Curatorial Note 2, Joseph Chang and Stephen D. Allee, May 19, 1998, in the object record).

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth 1929-2014


A new poem from an old brush may still have substance,
Just as slender stones in clear water can be extraordinary.

Admired for his seal carving, painting, and calligraphy, Wu Xizai was born and raised in the city of Yangzhou, in Jiangsu Province, an important commercial center to which his family had moved in an earlier generation. His father earned a meager living as a physiognomer, a kind of fortune-teller who could "read" a person's character and fate through examining his facial features. Despite these humble origins, Wu Xizai received a good education and passed the provincial qualifying exams, but made his living as a professional artist. In 1853, when advancing Taiping rebels threatened to engulf Yangzhou, Wu fled to relative safety in the nearby town of Taizhou, where he remained until 1864. During these years, he often stayed as a guest with various well-to-do friends and collectors, for whom he produced a steady stream of seals, paintings, and calligraphy.

Although Wu Xizai was adept at all styles and forms of writing, he is most highly regarded for his works in seal script and clerical script, as seen here, which were firmly grounded in his study of ancient stele inscriptions. In translating these early forms of writing, he was a leading exponent of the styles and techniques pioneered by Deng Shiru (1743-1805; see scroll at left). Following Deng's manner, Wu held his brush straight upright and applied steady pressure, using only the middle of the brushtip to write. As a result the individual strokes are generally of more-or-less even width and the tonality of the ink is a consistent dark black with no sign of streaking, while both the internal structure of individual characters and the spacing between them are carefully balanced and maintained. Written with firmness and authority, Wu Xizai probably created this couplet in Taizhou during the prime his career.

Published References
  • Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950., 1st ed. New York. vols. 1, 3: pp. 273, 66.
  • Thomas Lawton, Joseph Chang, Stephen Allee. Brushing the Past: Later Chinese Calligraphy from the Gift of Robert Haftield Ellsworth. Exh. cat. Washington. cat. 10, pp. 90-93, 132-33.
  • Thomas Lawton, Thomas W. Lentz. Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. vol. 1 Washington, 1998. pp. 256-261.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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