Couplet in running script

Artist: Li Keran (China, 1907-1989)
Historical period(s)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
H x W (image, each): 138.2 x 30.8 cm (54 3/8 x 12 1/8 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, couplet, Modern period (1912 - present), Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection, running script

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 3, Joseph Chang and Stephen D. Allee, May 19, 1998, in the object record).

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth 1929-2014


Inscribed on banana leaves, the writing is still green;
Singing of plum blossoms, his words are fragrant too.

One of the most highly regarded Chinese painters of the last half century, Li Keran was born to poor parents in Xuzhou, in northern Jiangsu Province. He showed early promise in painting and had attracted notice for his calligraphy by the age of nine. In the 1920s and early 30s, Li Keran studied at art schools in Shanghai and Hangzhou, and during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45), he resided in Chongqing, the Chinese wartime capital, where he participated in creating propaganda posters. After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Li was appointed to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), he became a target of political extremists and abandoned painting. Instead, Li devoted himself to calligraphy and developed the personal style that was to distinguish his later works. After 1976 he resumed painting, teaching, and writing until the time of his death.

Li Keran's personal style of calligraphy was largely derived from his study of early stone inscriptions and the crude forms of writing often found on simple, unsophisticated shop signs. He strongly advocated the rigorous study of traditional styles and techniques, while similtaneously striving to transform this tradition into a visual idiom suited to the tenor of modern times. Li Keran's brushstrokes and use of ink are bold in their initial address and then become paler or more streaked as the subsequent structural elements of each character are formed. This couplet is an excellent example of Li Keran's mature style of running script. Line one refers to the renowned Tang dynasty calligrapher and Buddhist monk, Huaisu (725-ca. 799), who could not afford paper and practiced writing on banana leaves. Line two alludes to the Song dynasty poet and archetypal scholar-recluse, Lin Bu (ca. 965-1026), who was especially fond of plum blossoms.

Published References
  • Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950., 1st ed. New York. vols. 1, 3: pp. 362, 259.
  • Thomas Lawton, Joseph Chang, Stephen Allee. Brushing the Past: Later Chinese Calligraphy from the Gift of Robert Haftield Ellsworth. Exh. cat. Washington. cat. 15, pp. 110-11, 135-6.
  • 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, Contemporary Art
Web Resources
Whistler's Neighborhood
Google Cultural Institute
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