Ninety-nine Goats


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The goat has an auspicious meaning in Chinese culture and is often used as a symbol for the coming of spring. At the highest Imperial levels, paintings of boys herding goats were enjoyed and commissioned across the centuries.

The present piece, lot 115 in ASIAN ART, 5 May 2015, is a two-thirds scale copy of the Song Dynasty original by Su Hanchen in the National Palace Museum, formally of the Chinese Imperial collection.

Interestingly, however, compositional elements within the painting can be seen across a wide array of paintings and tapestries from the Imperial collections. Such paintings tend to contain a boy with either three, nine, or as in this case, eighty-one goats. In at least three other paintings, now held at the National Palace, Taiwan, central aspects of the composition are reproduced including the central boy, the goat he rides and the pine tree which sweeps diagonally over his head. In these paintings too, various individual goats or small goat groups bear striking resemblances across the paintings.

This would indicate that compositions were built up around known compositional elements and indeed another painting depicting the riding boy and another boy facing another goat would appear to provide the basis of a more complex composition, the boys and goats being painted in a sketchily fashion and without recourse to any background details.

Compositions of boys and goats are also known in textiles. An embroidered textile dating the Yuan or Ming, composed of two panels now split between the Palace Museum, Beijing and the Metropolitan Museum, New York (the latter piece incidentally was purchased out of a London-based auction house before being sold to the Metropolitan Museum) bears a close relationship to these paintings. The Palace Museum section includes the compositional element of a boy riding a goat with a pine tree diagonally positioned above him, although in this case the composition is laterally inverted. That such compositions were appreciated at the highest Imperial levels is clear in the fact that the Qianlong Emperor later commissioned an embroidery of the very scene and graced the piece with an inscription from his own hand.

The present piece, probably painted in the Ming Dynasty, and so faithful in its recording of every detail of the original, must have been created under close consultation with the original. We might therefore conclude that it bears an Imperial provenance and the painting plays an important role in the story of the transmission of goat herd compositions thereby linking the emperors of the Yuan and Ming with the Qianlong emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Gugong Shuhua Tulu, 1989, volume 2, pp. 75, 79; volume 3, pp. 111, 235, 251, 253, 255, volume 5, p. 205
Bickford, Three Rams and Three Friends: The Working Lives of Chinese Auspicious Motifs, 1999.
China: The Three Emperors, 1662 – 1795, 2005, p. 297.

Lot 115: Follower of Su Hanchen. Ming Dynasty, or later. “Welcoming Spring”, ink and colour on silk, 96 x 63cm. Provenance: Seal of classical Chinese painting connoisseur, Zhang Hang (1915 - 1963); Formally in an English private collection in the West Country. ???? ????«???»

Update - SOLD: £8,400 (5 May 2015)

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