Groom and Horse, dated 1296
Zhao Mengfu (Chinese, 1254–1322)
Handscroll, ink and color on paper; 11 7/8 x 17 1/8 in. (30.3 x 43.5 cm)
Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., 1988 (1988.135)
The imported "celestial steed," treasured by early emperors and noble warriors, was a subject favored by such leading painters as Han Gan (active ca. 742–56) and Li Gonglin (ca. 1041–1106). In the early Yuan period (1271–1368), when alien Mongol rulers curtailed the employment of Chinese scholar-officials, the theme of "groom and horse" became a metaphor adopted to plead for the proper use of scholarly talent, and the famous saying of the Tang essayist Han Yu (762–824) was frequently quoted: "There are always excellent steeds, but not always a Bole, the excellent judge of horses." In Zhao Mengfu's painting, executed in early 1296, when Zhao had recently retired from serving under Kublai Khan (r. 1260–95), the circular, abstract form of the horse serves as a deliberate foil to the sensitively rendered figure of the groom—a portrait, perhaps, of the painting's recipient (identified in Zhao's dedication at left), who may have been a government recruiter.