Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding a Donkey
early 16th century
Hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1917.108
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On the left side of the painting, a man appears riding a donkey along a lakeside trail. Bundled against the cold and accompanied by a servant carrying his zither (qin
), the man is making a day excursion, which started perhaps from the rustic houses nestled snugly behind him at the base of towering mountains. Passing the first plum tree on the trail, he heads toward a nearby promontory, where an open-sided, thatched pavilion awaits, shaded by two large pines and other plum trees in bloom. Searching for plum blossoms first appeared as an important theme in Chinese painting during the Song dynasty (9601279), and numerous accounts confirm that it was a common seasonal practice for scholars to make forays into the mountains to gather plum blossoms and compose poetry about their ephemeral, pristine beauty.
The left side of the painting has been trimmed, obscuring the thematic importance of the rider and perhaps removing the artist's signature. Although this work is currently unsigned, the heavy outlines of the branches and tree trunks, along with other details, such as the face of the rider and the decisive brushwork of the rock and mountain formations, show all the stylistic hallmarks of the professional artist Zhou Chen, an early exponent of the Wu School, which was centered during the middle Ming dynasty (13681644) in Zhou's native city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.