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In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony: Paintings and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren (1626 – 1705) from the Bequest of Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai at the Freer Gallery of Art

In 1998, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art acquired a large number of paintings and works of calligraphy by Chinese artist Bada Shanren (1626 – 1705)- one of the most renowned and influential individualist painters and calligraphers of the early Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912). “In Pursuit of Heavenly Harmony: Paintings and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren (1626 – 1705) from the Bequest of Wang Fangyu and Sum Wai,” on view at the gallery from April 26 to Oct. 12, presents all 33 of these works, which were obtained through a bequest and purchase from the estate of Fred Fangyu Wang (Wang Fangyu 1913 – 1997) and his wife, Sum Wai (1918 – 1996).

A professor of Chinese language at Yale University, Wang was one of the most prominent modern Bada Shanren scholars. Together with his wife, Wang assembled the largest and most important private collection of Bada’s works in the world. Included in this exhibition are paintings from the core of Professor Wang’s collection representing various stages of the artist’s life.

Bada Shanren, whose true name is unknown, was born in 1626 to a branch of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) imperial family renowned for its artistic talent. Bada began writing poetry at an early age and showed early promise as a calligrapher and painter. After the fall of the Ming dynasty however, he sought refuge and anonymity as a Buddhist monk, eventually rising to the post of abbot. Bada suffered an apparent mental breakdown in the late 1670s and left the priesthood, becoming a professional painter and adopting the pseudonym “Bada Shanren.” In the early 1700s, though continuing to paint, Bada became a hermit, seeking solitude and harmony with the natural order ordained by heaven.

Examples of calligraphy on view with translations include:

  • one of the earliest known surviving calligraphic transcriptions of the ancient “Half-Stele of Xingfu Temple”
  • “Preface to the Gathering at the River Compound” by Wang Xizhi (ca.303-361) written in Bada’s own style of fourth-century running standard script

“Calligraphic techniques and the manipulation of brush and ink were also the foundation of Bada’s approach to painting,” says Freer and Sackler Director Julian Raby. “As a painter, he developed an idiosyncratic visual vocabulary full of personal symbolism and artistic gesture that make his deceptively simple works endlessly intriguing. The lack of ornament and seemingly guileless innocence of Bada’s paintings appeal to the modern eye.”

Of particular note are:

  • a painting of lotuses-one of the earliest surviving works by Bada Shanren-from an album of eight double leaves featuring ink lotuses
  • an exact copy of an album by Bada’s greatest inspiration and influence Dong Qichang (1655 – 1636).This work occupies a unique place in the artist’s overall oeuvre, verifying Bada’s allegiance to certain ancient masters from the Song and Yuan dynasties (10th to 14th centuries)
  • a rare painting of lilac flowers

The generous gift to the Freer by Mr. Shao F. Wang, son of Professor Wang and Sum Wai, of paintings from the core of his parents’ collection, together with much of his father’s archives and study materials on Bada Shanren, has contributed to making the Freer the foremost center for the study in the West of this enigmatic artist. The purchase of an additional 12 outstanding works of calligraphy and one painting by Bada Shanren from the estate was made possible by a major grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation in honor of the Freer’s 75th anniversary in 1998. Conservation of these works was carried out under the auspices of the galleries’ Chinese Painting Conservation Program, supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

A 195-page catalog is on sale in the gallery store or online at Funding for this publication was provided by the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ Publications Endowment Fund, initially established with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and generous contributions from private donors.

This exhibition at the Freer (Jefferson Drive and 12th Street S.W.) overlaps a related exhibition on view until July 27 at the neighboring Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) titled “After the Madness: The Secular Life, Art and Imitation of Bada Shanren (1626 – 1705).

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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