The Sixteen Luohans

Artist: Wu Bin (active ca. 1583–1626)

Period: Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Date: dated 1591

Culture: China

Medium: Handscroll; ink and color on paper

Dimensions: Image: 12 5/8 x 163 9/16 in. (32.1 x 415.4 cm)
Overall with mounting: 13 1/4 x 398 1/16 in. (33.7 x 1011.1 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1986

Accession Number: 1986.266.4


By 1600, Wu Bin, who began painting in his native Fujian Province, had moved to the southern capital Nanjing, where he served as a court-appointed painter specializing in landscapes and Buddhist subjects. A lifelong devotee of Buddhism, in Nanjing, Wu entered an order of untonsured monks affiliated with the Chan Buddhist Qixia Temple.

In Chinese popular imagination, mendicant monks, conjurors, and mysterious hermits were often thought to be disguised "living Luohans," or Buddhist holy men capable of magic and miracles. When government corruption and ineptitude imperiled social order, as it did in late Ming times, such superstitious messianic beliefs became more widespread.

Reveling in eccentricity, Wu's art represents a fin-de-siècle rebellion in painting style. In The Sixteen Luohans, one of Wu Bin's earliest extant works, the artist has already begun to invent an eccentric archaism in figure painting that was to influence late Ming figure painters, most notably Chen Hongshou (1598–1652), as well as woodblock artists. The theatrical nature of the Luohan figures suggests that the artist may have been inspired by popular religious dramas or festival processions.