Portrait of the Artist's Great-Granduncle Yizhai at the Age of Eighty-Five

Artist: Ruan Zude (Chinese, 16th or early 17th century)

Period: Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Date: dated "xinyou" (1561 or 1621?)

Culture: China

Medium: Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk

Dimensions: Image: 61 3/4 x 37 7/8 in. (156.8 x 96.2 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Seymour Fund, 1959

Accession Number: 59.49.1


Portraits of monarchs for use in the state cult of ancestor worship have a long tradition in China, but the rise of private portraiture as a significant artistic genre occurred only during the latter half of the sixteenth century as a result of increased economic prosperity and a growing spirit of individualism.

This image epitomizes the late Ming genre of formal portraiture in which the sitter is depicted frontally, with a realistically described face set atop a body that is largely concealed beneath the stylized folds of an engulfing robe. According to the inscription, the painting depicts the artist's relative Yizhai on the occasion of his eighty-fifth birthday. Unlike an "ancestor portrait," which was typically commissioned after a person's death and was therefore highly schematic, this portrait was painted from life. Nonetheless, the mode of representation is basically linear, with little use of shading to model facial features—a Western technique that was first introduced into China in the sixteenth century and did not become widespread until the mid-seventeenth century. Yizhai is depicted in an informal hat and robe, an indication that he either never held official rank or that he had adopted the costume of a gentleman living in retirement.