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Famous Women
by Cao Zhenxiu and Gai Qi
1799
Purchase, Bequests of Edna H. Sachs and Flora E. Whiting, by exchange; Fletcher Fund, by exchange; Gifts of Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham and Mrs. Henry J. Bernheim, by exchange; and funds from various donors, by exchange, 2016
2016.362a–t
Episode 10 / 2017

...in Gai Qi's visual wizardry, we see the understated but knowing defiance that makes Chinese art at the dawn of the nineteenth century so appealing."

Famous Women is a quietly audacious collaboration between Cao Zhenxiu, one of the most prominent female authors of her day, and Gai Qi, a young painter of overweening talent and originality. In 1799, Cao asked Gai to illustrate a cycle of poems she had written about sixteen famous women from Chinese history and legend. This genre, known as "exemplary women" (lienü), was old, but Cao's choices were new. In place of the filial daughters and chaste widows who were usually celebrated, she foregrounded scholars, painters, calligraphers, and even warriors, encoding an argument for an expanded understanding of female virtue. In response to this bold and original set of choices, Gai Qi made paintings that also challenged tradition, pairing virtuoso brush technique with witty, inventive compositions to match Cao's poems with moments of visual surprise and delight.

Gai Qi was recognized in his late teens for an ability to invest old figure painting themes with a fresh, contemporary sensibility. When Cao Zhenxiu engaged him for Famous Women, he was only twenty-five, but he was widely known as a rising star in the art world. In this, his early masterwork, Cao's genius is in full display, as he wrests seemingly infinite tonal and textural variety out of simple materials: supple brush, ink, and paper. In places, his pinpoint-fine line looks as if it were drawn with a stylus, while in other places subtle washes seem to have been whispered onto the page. Though small in scale and quiet in tone, Gai's images demand attention through their dazzling skill and playful novelty.

Chinese art of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has not received sufficient attention. Famous Women provides an object lesson in the significant charms of this period—in Cao's sly challenge to traditional expectations and in Gai Qi's visual wizardry, we see the understated but knowing defiance that makes Chinese art at the dawn of the nineteenth century so appealing.

Joseph Scheier-Dolberg
Assistant Curator
Department of Asian Art
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