Shitao, born Zhu Ruoji, a scion of the Ming imperial family, escaped death in his youth by taking refuge in the Buddhist priesthood. In 1662 he became a disciple of the powerful Chan (Zen) master Lü’an Benyue (d. 1676). In the late 1660s and 1670s, while living in seclusion in temples around Xuancheng, Anhui Province, he taught himself to paint.
In The Sixteen Luohans, Shitao’s earliest major extant work, the young painter, then twenty-five, drew what are possibly the most effective figures since the Yuan period (1279–1368). A rare religious subject for Shitao, known for his visionary landscapes, the scroll depicts the sixteen guardian luohans (saints) ordered by the Buddha to live in the mountains and protect the Buddhist law until the coming of the future Buddha.
Stylistically, the immediate sources for Shitao’s figures were late Ming painters, such as Ding Yunpeng (1547–ca. 1621) and Wu Bin (act. ca. 1583–1626). Unlike Wu Bin’s luohans, which seem to be merely grotesque caricatures, Shitao’s are carefully observed, showing such thoroughly human qualities as humor and curiosity.
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清 石濤 (朱若極) 十六羅漢圖 卷
Title:The Sixteen Luohans
Artist:Shitao (Zhu Ruoji) (Chinese, 1642–1707)
Period:Qing dynasty (1644–1911)
Medium:Handscroll; ink on paper
Dimensions:Image: 18 1/4 in. × 19 ft. 7 3/4 in. (46.4 × 598.8 cm) Overall with mounting: 22 5/16 in. × 74 ft. 7 in. (56.7 × 2273.3 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1985
Inscription: Artist’s inscription and signatures (1 column in standard script)
[Painted in the] dingwei year  by the “grandson” of Tiantong Min [Muchen Daomin, 1596–1674], and the “son” of Shanguo Yue [Lü’an Benyue, died 1676], Shitao, Ji.
Ji shanseng 濟山僧 Qingxiang Shitao 清湘石濤
Mei Qing 梅清 (1623–1697), 12 columns in semi-cursive/standard script, undated; 2 seals:
Among the inspired practitioners of monochrome drawing (baimiao), the very best is Longmian [Li Gonglin, ca. 1041–1106)]. Most [works attributed to him] that I have seen are imitations, not authentic. Master Shitao's Sixteen Luohans [possesses] exquisite detail, bravura [brush] movements, a divinely interesting composition, and brushwork and ink washes that almost exhaust [the possibilities of] creative metamorphosis. He said that this handscroll took one year from start to finish. I have set it out on my table and admired it tens of times, but I have never been able to exhaust one ten-thousandth [of its richness]. Respectfully inscribed by Qushan, Mei Qing. [Seals]: Mei zi, Chen Qing
 Translation by Maxwell K. Hearn, Cultivated landscapes: Chinese paintings from the collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002, pp. 57, 60.
Douglas Dillon American, New York (until 1985; donated to MMA)
National Museum of History, Taipei. "Overseas Collections of the Art of Bada Shanren and Shitao," February 1, 1984–March 11, 1984.
Tainan Culture Center. "Overseas Collections of the Art of Bada Shanren and Shitao," March 15, 1984–March 31, 1984.
Kansas City. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. "The Century of Dong Qichang," April 19–June 14, 1992.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The Century of Dong Qichang," July 6–September 20, 1992.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Century of Dong Qichang," October 15, 1992–January 3, 1993.
Lawrence. Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas. "Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850–1850," August 28, 1994–October 9, 1994.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. "Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850–1850," November 16, 1994–January 11, 1995.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The New Chinese Galleries: An Inaugural Installation," 1997.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "When the Manchus Ruled China: Painting under the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)," February 2–August 18, 2002.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Dreams of Yellow Mountain: Landscapes of Survival in Seventeenth-Century China," September 13, 2003–February 22, 2004.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities, and Immortals in Chinese Art," September 10, 2005–January 8, 2006.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: How to Read Chinese Paintings," March 1–August 10, 2008.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Another World Lies Beyond: Chinese Art and the Divine," August 24, 2019–January 5, 2020.
Fong, Wen C. et al. Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at the Art Museum, Princeton University. Exh. cat. Princeton, N.J.: Art Museum, Princeton University in association with Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 199–200, figs. 165–66.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Asia. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, pp. 104–105, pl. 66.
Hearn, Maxwell K. How to Read Chinese Paintings. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008, pp. 142–49, cat. no. 33.
He Muwen 何慕文 (Hearn, Maxwell K.). Ruhe du Zhongguo hua: Daduhui Yishu Bowuguan cang Zhongguo shuhua jingpin daolan 如何读中国画 : 大都会艺术博物馆藏中国书画精品导览 (How to read Chinese paintings) Translated by Shi Jing 石静. Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2015, pp. 142–49, cat. no. 33.
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