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Orchids and Chinese Monochrome Ink Painting

For those who have visited both the Smithsonian Institution Natural History’s Orchids: A View from the East and Freer | Sackler’s The Orchid in Chinese Painting, they’d be amazed by the contrast between the vibrate colors of the live orchids and the monochrome ink representation done in the Chinese paintings.

Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Transfer from the United States Customs Service, Department of the Treasury, F1980.112C, Landscapes, Flowers and Birds: Orchid1780, by Luo Ping (1733-1799).

From the preeminent Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE), the orchid has been associated with gentlemen of high moral standards whose talent and integrity are usually ignored by the authority. Later other virtues like royalty and friendship were added to the symbolic presentation of orchids. Not until Song dynasty (960-1279) did the subject of orchid appeared in Chinese painting. The Chinese gentleman-scholars who were living in obscurity or retirement compared themselves with orchids’ unassuming and underappreciated characters. The plants’ long and elegant leaves were appreciated for their purity and dignity and expressed in the scholars’ monochrome ink orchid paintings.

Using monochrome ink color is considered the best form to represent the plain elegance and integrity which are regarded as the inner qualities of the discreet orchid-like person or the personified orchid. The ink orchid in paintings is typically shown as leaf blades rendered in deep ink and the blooms using like ink. Traditionally, the most challenging part of painting the orchid is in the execution of the long leaf-strokes. The first two or three blades are quite easy to manage but when they grow into a tuft, the difficulty becomes enormous indeed. The slightest negligence may turn the whole picture into a rendering of weeds and rushes.

For more information on the symbolic meaning of orchid in Chinese culture, particularly in Chinese painting, please contact the Freer/Sackler Galleries Library.    

Yue Shu


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