The painting collection of Ms. Yuan Jiayin 袁家英 and Mr. Li Guoyin 李國元 was assembled over the past fifty years and consists of fan paintings, calligraphy, album pages and scrolls.
Ms. Yuan is the granddaughter of Yuan Shikai 袁世凱, the renowned general of the late Qing Dynasty who, amongst many things, became the first formal President of the Republic of China (1914) and later attempted to revive the monarchy by declaring himself the Hongxian Emperor. Her grandmother, known as Lady Yang, was the fifth and favorite concubine of Yuan Shikai.
Together with her husband, Li Guoyin, an English-speaking secretary to the Kuomintang Nationalist Party, Ms. Yuan moved from China, then Indonesia, and finally to the United States in 1962. Mr. Li passed away in 1980, and the family soon afterwards settled in Chicago. The 125 paintings offered for sale represent one of the pride and joys of the couple, and these works have never been shown to the public until this sale.
From this painting collection, the most important grouping is perhaps lot 76, twelve calligraphy scrolls of Wang Xizhi’s Shi Qi Tie Calligraphy in cursive script by Xing Tong 郉侗 (1551-1612). Xing was an important scholar and official during the Late Ming Dynasty and his calligraphies were considered of similar status to masters such as Dong Qichang 董其昌 (1555-1636).
Xing admired the works of Wang Xizhi 王羲之(303-362) a Jin Dynasty official who is considered the most important calligrapher in Chinese history. In these twelve pages, Xing is replicating Wang’s famous seventeen letters in cursive script, the shiqi tie (十七貼).
One of the most attractive paintings in this auction is lot 80, a depiction of cranes and deer attributed to Shen Quan 沈銓 (1682-1760). Shen is renowned for his realistic ‘Western’ depiction of florals and fauna - a style that was popular during the 18th Century Chinese court. This painting depicts a pair of cranes and deer under a canopy of pine, which are all symbols for longevity. The date is cyclically inscribed to the gengwu 庚午 year of the Qianlong reign (1750).
This sale also features four important calligraphy paintings (lots 90-93) by the master calligrapher and painter Wu Changshuo 吳昌碩 (1844-1927). Despite being mostly known for his paintings of birds, florals and rockery, his early career was committed to learning ancient Chinese script and poetry. These four calligraphy scrolls showcase this dedication as he is copying the early bronze scripts found on ancient Warring States Period (475-221 BC) stone fragments.
The Yuan Jiayin and Li Guoyin painting collection also contain over sixty fan paintings from the Qing Dynasty. Chinese fans existed as a method for cooling the body around the 3rd Century BC, but it wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that they were popularized as an artistic art form.
One of the better painted fans in this sale is lot 19, a depiction of ladies under a prunus branch by Wang Su 王素(1797-1877). Delicately painted on silk, the fan features a court lady holding a qin (seven-stringed zither) while a young attendant looks over her. They are outdoors under a canopy of blossoming prunus trees.
The original owner of this fan would probably have been a lady of the court, and its painting would have inspired her towards the virtues of a woman during that time. This may have included playing a musical instrument, admiring nature and dressing accordingly.
Finally, the most endearing painting from this auction is lot 85, an anonymous portrait of a dog from the Qing Dynasty. This dog is painted in the 18th Century court style, similar to those by Shen Quan and the Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione 郎世寧 (1688-1766).
The dog is extremely ‘Western’ in its portrayal with its realism, shading and high attention to detail. It is the only painting from this collection that was shown to the public in advance of the official announcement of this auction. To celebrate the Chinese Year of the Dog (February 16th, 2018 to February 4th, 2019), Leslie Hindman Auctioneers loaned this painting to the Heritage Museum of Asian Art in Chicago for their exhibition ‘Dogs from the Han to the Qing’ from February to March 2018.
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Anthony Wu is an Asian Art consultant, researcher, writer based in Toronto, Canada. After working eleven years as the Asian Art specialist at two of Canada’s largest regional auctions, he started his own art advising firm where he consults for various auction houses, museums, and private clients in Canada and the USA. He is a certified Chinese Fine Art appraiser with the Appraisers Association of America.