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An official is herding horses by the bank of a pond in an autumn grove. His red gown distinguishes him from the extensive green grassland. The horses, ten in total, are muscular yet lithe. Vividly depicted, some are galloping or chasing each other, some are wandering leisurely, some bow their heads to drink from the pond, and others are stretching their necks to whinny. Following the painting style of Tang artists, Zhao Mengfu executed this piece with fine brush lines and luxuriant color.
Zhao Mengfu excelled at painting equestrians. Adopting a realistic painting style, Zhao followed two masters. One was the Tang dynasty (618-907) artist Han Gan (ca. 715-after 781), who preferred portraying tall and muscular horses and applied rich colors to his paintings. Han's horse paintings were often combined with trees, boulders, streams and mountains to create a whole composition. Zhao's other source was the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) artist Li Gonglin (1049-1106) whose horse paintings emphasized the melding of brush line, image, and media. Instead of applying heavy colors, Li washed his images with pale ink, paying careful attention to brush lines. Zhao Mengfu's paintings are innovative in that the figure is wearing Tang style dress, which suggests both antiquarianism and the educated elite.
The painting is unique in its composition. It integrates level, upward and downward perspectives, a method which expands the visual space. Zhao chose the middle and lower visual fields as his focus, in which he carefully distributed the subjects. Zhao Mengfu wrote a five character title, Equestrian in Autumn Grove (Qiujiao yinma tu) on the top right corner of this painting, under which he signed and dated the painting: "The eleventh month of the lunar year, the first year of the Huangqing era (1312), by Ziang", when Zhao Mengfu was fifty-eight years old.
Zhao Mengfu internalized both the "blue-green" style popular in the Tang dynasty and the literati style that evolved from the Song dynasty to form his own style. The figures in his works are executed with delicate and forceful brush lines, whereas the trees, boulders and banks are relatively rough. With many painting methods employed for the landscape, Zhao developed a style that is simultaneously precise and carefree. Dark green and bright red mingle with ochre and ink, making the painting fresh and elegant. Bold and fluent brush lines contribute to the antiquarian feel of the painting. The whole piece perfectly combines technical skills and the artistic expression of the literary man, exemplifying Zhao's mature painting style.
As early as the Yuan dynasty, collectors treasured this painting. Some of them, including the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, wrote inscriptions after the painting.