Artist: Xu Beihong (Chinese, 1895–1953)
Date: dated 1932
Medium: Hanging scroll; ink on bark paper
Dimensions: 20 1/2 x 14 3/4 in. (52.1 x 37.5 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, in memory of La Ferne Hatfield Ellsworth, 1986
Accession Number: 1986.267.192
Xu Beihong was the most influential proponent of Western academic realism in twentieth-century China. Inspired by the political reformer Kang Youwei (1858–1927), who advocated "an integration of Chinese and Western art to create a new era of Chinese painting," Xu traveled to Japan in 1917 to study Western art and returned the following year to become an art instructor at Beijing University. In 1919 Xu became the first government-sponsored student to go to Europe to study art. Until 1927 he studied in Paris and Berlin, mastering an already moribund academic style.
This painting exemplifies Xu's fusion of East and West. While he employed the conventional Chinese medium of brush and ink, his drawing technique was purely Western. Rather than defining the horse with calligraphically energized outlines, he sketched it impressionistically, integrating light and dark washes and uninked areas of paper to suggest light and shadow. The horse's complex pose-foreshortened body, twisting neck, and naturalistically placed legs is deftly rendered with a few well-practiced brushstrokes, while the layered tones of the animal's tail give the impression of movement.
Recalling the tradition of the horse as an emblem of state, Xu's spirited animals appeal to national pride. He painted so many of them that they have become synonymous with his name. Xu made this early example for Qi Baishi's son when going to visit Qi's house. Qi explains in his inscription that Xu failed to bring his seals, which is why the painting lacks an impression.