Bird on a branch

Ren Yi (1840-1895) was the most successful and influential of the 'Four Rens', four artists with the surname Ren in the Shanghai school. He was born into a family who did portrait painting for a living, and therefore managed to build up a firm foundation of painting techniques when he was a child. Ren Yi roamed the Lake Tai area during his twenties and learned painting from famous artists such as Ren Xiong (1820-1857), Ren Xun (1835-1893), and Wu Changshuo (1844-1927). In 1863, Ren Yi moved to Shanghai, where he became a very well received artist.
Ren Yi's early flower-and-bird paintings are characterised by the gongbi fine brush style. After 1880, he turned to a more succinct and powerful style after Zhu Da (Bada Shanren) (c.1626-1705). This painting, dated to 1886, demonstrates this transition in his style - the bird was finished with ink in different tones and only slight colour.

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  • Catalogue text

    Ren Yi was from Shanyin, present-day Shaoxing in Zhejiang province, the son of a portraitist. In the winter of 1868 he moved to Shanghai, where he lived for the rest of his life. Shanghai was a rapidly growing commercial centre at that time, and artists from all over China went there to sell their paintings. There emerged a 'Shanghai School' of painting, associated with a synthesis of popular and traditional style, in which Ren Yi is regarded as the leading figure. He is known for his bold brushwork and use of colour, particularly in figure and bird-and-flower paintings. The latter were mostly in Song style until he came across an album by the early Qing individualist painter Zhu Da (Ba da shan ren), by whose looser style he was influenced. He was more closely a successor to the Shanghai based painters Ren Xiong (1823-57) and Ren Xun (1834-93).

    In: Vainker, Shelagh, Chinese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2000)

Further reading

Vainker, Shelagh, Chinese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2000), no. 116 on p. 132, illus. p. 133 fig. 116

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