God of Longevity 壽星圖 - ROM2018_16344_21


God of Longevity 壽星圖

Maker: Wan Shouqi (1603-1652)
Medium:Hanging scroll, ink and colou on silk
Geography: China
Period: Ming dynasty, 1368-1644
Ht 104.7 x Wt 62.3 cm
Object number: 978.213.1
On view
Gallery Location:The Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume

This painting portrays the God of Longevity holding a peach of immortality in his right hand, and in his left hand he holds a cane with a dragon design on the top, where a gourd is attached. Next to him is a spotted deer with a magic mushroom in its mouth. On the top left of the painting is a red bat. Seen from a distance, the work appears to be drawn by brush lines. Upon closer examination, we can see that all the lines are actually formed by tiny Chinese characters: the outline of the God of Longevity is composed of the Chinese characters for longevity (shou 壽); the deer is composed of the Chinese characters for fortune (lu 禄, which is a homophone for deer 鹿); and the bat is composed of the Chinese characters for happiness (fu 福, a homophone for bat 蝠). Therefore, the painting can be regarded as representing fu, lu, and shou. Most of the tiny characters are written neatly and precisely. There are instances where the proportion of some characters is distorted in terms of the proportion of the objects that they outline. Overall, the figure and the animals look natural and vivid despite the fact that they are composed of characters rather than lines.

Wang Shucun’s old collection of the Blissful Painting of Fu, Lu, and Shou (Fulu shouxi tu 福祿壽喜圖) is a similar work that uses characters to create the outlines of subjects, except that it includes all three gods.1 Wang believes that the painting is an early example of painted New Year pictures based on the theme of the Three Gods (fu, lu, shou), made during the Yuan dynasty or the early Ming dynasty. He regards it as a prototype for the theme of the Three Gods in later prints. Wang also infers that the method of using tiny characters to draw the outlines was influenced by the practice of writing Buddhist scriptures into paintings. A bodhisattva painting unearthed at the White Elephant Tower in Wenzhou 溫州, Zhejiang province, for example, is composed of the scriptures of Amitayurdhyana Sutra 佛說觀無量壽佛經.2

The artist Wan Shouqi’s signature and his two seals, nianshao 年少 and shouqi siyin 壽祺私印, are found at the lower left corner of the painting. Wan Shouqi 萬壽祺, courtesy name Nianshao 年少, was a local of Xuzhou 徐州, Jiangsu Province. He was a known writer and painter in the late Ming and the early Qing dynasty. A seal of the Emperor Qianlong 乾隆 is stamped on the upper middle section of the painting. Another seal stamped on the upper right edge reads, “Your subject Tingyu respectfully accepts your majesty’s conferment” (chen Tingyu gongcheng enci 臣廷玉恭承恩賜). These seals indicate that this painting was collected by the Qing court and later was given to the Minister Zhang Tingyu 張廷玉 (1672–1755).

1 Wang Shucun, Yangliuqing nianhua ziliaoji, fig. 88.

2 Wang Shucun, Zhongguo minjian meishu quanji: huihuajuan, 138–9, fig.7.

Publication: Wen-Chien Cheng, and Yanwen Jiang. Gods in my home: Chinese ancestor portraits and popular prints (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2019), 160-161.

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