Lesser-known portraits provide a view of artist’s true temperament

A luminary of modern Chinese art, the late painter, calligrapher and seal sculptor, Qi Baishi (1864-1957) is best known for his flower-and-bird paintings and landscapes.

His works in the former category still enjoy household popularity for their accurate depiction of small insects and for the delightful sentiment of his loose brushwork when depicting aquatic life, such as shrimps and crabs.

His landscapes convey a worldly grandeur, being primarily grounded in distinctive natural scenery during five separate journeys he took across the country in the early 20th century.

These paintings of animals and the extensive views of nature continue to be highly sought-after among art collectors.

An album of 12 landscapes completed by Qi in 1925 fetched 931.5 million yuan ($131 million) at a Beijing auction in 2017, a record price for any piece of Chinese art on the open market. His second most expensive work ever sold is a flower-and-bird painting which shows an eagle resting on a pine tree.

The popularity of these works has left his portraits a somewhat overlooked part of Qi’s oeuvre, although it was the type of artwork that brought him his early fame and earned him an income in addition to working as a carpenter in his native Hunan province.

After moving to Beijing, where he gradually enhanced his reputation and garnered wide acclaim, Qi painted more of his flower-and-bird themed pieces that were being commissioned by dealers or given as gifts to social acquaintances.

It is Qi’s paintings of people, however, that offer a glimpse of the ink master’s true temperament, which lay hidden behind his often amiable manner.

“While his paintings of figures, both real and mythical, were not in such great demand, Qi mostly worked in this area to satisfy his own creativity. The works, therefore, embrace his personal emotions and original views on art,” says Wu Hongliang, director of the Art Museum of the Beijing Fine Art Academy.

The academy, built upon a considerable assembly of Qi’s works, is dedicated to the study of the versatile artist and mounts carefully-curated, themed exhibitions based on years of thorough research.

An exhibition currently underway at the academy’s art museum, which will run through Oct 16, focuses on Qi’s portraits, where the exhibits are drawn from the collections of not only the academy, but also from 11 other cultural institutions.

The exhibition’s title is a line from one of Qi’s own verses: “The less I am known, the more leisurely I feel”.

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