Rare Fowl Sketched from Life

Although the painter created it to teach his son how to paint, Rare Fowl Sketched from Life has become a popular example of bird-and-flower painting.


For centuries, Chinese paintings have focused on three subjects: figures, landscapes, birds and flowers.

One of the most prominent, the bird-and-flower painting, dates back to as early as 3,000 years ago. Archeologists have found intricate paintings of birds and flowers on ceramics as well as on silk paintings from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). Later, they became associated with Buddhist art.

In figure paintings, flowers and birds were often used as symbols for people’s mood and temperament. Throughout the centuries, painters slowly started to expand their scope of work and added other animals, such as insects and fish, to the traditional bird-and-flower painting.

Despite their wide appeal, the bird-and-flower painting did not become an independent genre of art in traditional Chinese painting until the middle to late Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and only began to fully flourish during the following Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-960).

During this period, Huang Quan (AD circa 903-965) from Chengdu, now the capital of southwest China’s Sichuan Province, developed the xiesheng, or lifelike sketch style, for painting birds and brought the fine brush or “court-style” painting to its height. Both styles are known for their super realistic beauty.

When he was 17, Huang was already a member of the Imperial Painting Academy of the Former Shu Kingdom (AD 934-965). Later, he became the head of the academy and pioneered the court-style painting.

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“Rare Fowl Sketched from Life” was likely created when the artist tried to teach his son how to paint. The handscroll depicts a total of 10 fowls, two turtles and 12 insects. As it was meant for tutorial purpose, the father used different techniques in this painting. The bird-and-flower painting started to flourish during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960 AD) and later became a very important genre in traditional Chinese painting.

Some scholars believe that Huang was influenced by gewu zhizhi, a Confucian concept that strives to obtain true knowledge by carefully observing the phenomena of nature. In order to create detailed paintings, Huang and his school pioneered the use of particularly fine brushes.

But it wasn’t just about the technique: Detailed paintings of nature meant that Huang spent a lot of time observing and sketching numerous live birds to create depictions as realistic as possible. 

Legend has it that he succeeded in this endeavor. Huang, the story goes, had painted six cranes on a palace wall which looked so real that live cranes, confusing their own depiction with real specimen, flew to the palace wall to linger. 

Still, Huang’s most widely known work of art is a painting titled Rare Fowl Sketched from Life, which survived the centuries and is now part of the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

The ink and color on silk handscroll depicts 10 fowls, two turtles and 12 insects. Although many experts believe that Huang simply created it to teach his son how to paint, it has become a popular example of bird-and-flower painting.

The birds, turtles and insects in the painting are detached from one another, without any apparent interaction, and yet they seem to live harmoniously in the same environment. Rich in detail, they are realistic depictions of the actual animals, leaving little to the viewer’s imagination. 

For instance, the wings of the cicadas are delicate and translucent, while the shells of the two turtles appear rock-hard, and the feathers of the birds are fine and soft. 

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By using fine brushes and multiple layers of color, Huang created intricate, realistic depictions of wildlife that were based on observations in nature.

Art experts believe that Huang first used very light, thin ink lines to sketch each animal and then applied multiple layers of color to create an image of superb verisimilitude.

Huang and his son Huang Jucai made their fine brush sketches a standard style of the Song and Ming dynasties.

Zhao Ji, the famous Song Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) and a talented painter and calligrapher himself, became a major patron and promoter of Huang’s elegant and realistic style. Until today, Huang’s Rare Fowl Sketched from Life is a paradigm for artists devoted to his style of bird-and-flower painting in China.

写生珍禽图 (Xiěshēng Zhēnqín Tú)

Artist: Huang Quan (AD circa 903-965)

Year: the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-960)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 41.5 x 70.8 cm

Location: Palace Museum in Beijing



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