first quarter of the 1400s
(Chinese, about 1354-1428)
Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk
Overall: 152.1 x 95.3 cm (59 7/8 x 37 1/2 in.)
Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund 1980.12
Among the most talented court painters of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Bian Wenjin was known for harmoniously combining elegant calligraphic brushwork with meticulous realism. From his close observations of nature, he carefully depicted four large magpies, medium-sized songbirds (bulbuls) with white necks and black heads, and numerous small sparrows in this painting. Ming period bird-and-flower paintings, as exemplified in this work, became much more ostentatious in size and color scheme than those in earlier periods. Like many imperially commissioned works of art, Bian’s bird-and-flower works served as a vehicle to convey auspicious meanings or positive political messages for his imperial patrons. The “hundred bird” theme symbolizes the prosperity of a state under the rule of a sophisticated emperor. The “three friends of winter”—pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms—represent one’s enduring perseverance in a harsh environment.
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