In the Palace

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In the Palace (宮中圖)

Anonymous after Zhou Wenju (周文矩, 10th c.), Song Dynasty (960-1279)

Handscroll, ink and touches of color on silk, 26 x 146.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

       In the Palace, a freehand copy of a tenth-century handscroll by Zhou Wenju, depicts daily life among the palace ladies of the Southern Tang emperor Li Yu (李煜, r. 961–75), a renowned patron of the arts who trained his ladies to sing and act out his lyrics.

       This twelfth-century copy is not a later painting in an ancient style but an ancient work reincarnated in a later vernacular. In making his copy, the artist chose the “plain-drawing” (白描) style of Li Gonglin (李公麟, ca. 1049–1106), whose nephew commissioned the work in 1140. Concentrating on line, the painter eliminated the colors found in the original. Figures are drawn in the type of strongly calligraphic line admiringly characterized by Song critics as “iron wire.” In this style, the brush tip is kept at the center of the brushstroke to create taut fluid lines.

       The twelfth-century painting was later divided into four sections. The Metropolitan’s scroll is the fourth section. The three other sections are in the Bernard Berenson collection, near Florence, Italy; the Cleveland Museum of Art; and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.

Anonymous: In the Palace