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A Golden Pheasant Resting on Hibiscus Branch (Furong jinji tu) is honored as a masterpiece among "bird and flower" paintings of the Song (960-1279), a dynasty that saw the development of this category of painting into an independent genre.
The artist set the scene in a golden autumn: hibiscus blossoms flutter in the breeze. A pheasant is resting on a branch, turning around gazing at the hovering butterflies. At the top right corner, Emperor Huizong inscribed the painting with a pentasyllabic quatrain in his famous slender gold script (shoujin ti), praising the five virtues of the pheasant. He also wrote at the lower right corner, "Imperially painted and inscribed in the Xuanhe period [1119-1125]", and his pictorial style name "First man under the heaven" (Tianxia yiren).
As noted in old Chinese books, the cock is crowned as a "virtuous bird" (de qin). "It is refined as it wears a crest; martial as its claws can fight; brave as it confronts rivals frontally; benevolent as it calls friends to share food, and punctual as it never misses the morning crow." In admiration, the Emperor Huizong painted a bright pheasant resting on a hibiscus branch.
Styles of extant works attributed to Zhao Ji appear distinctly different. One is meticulous and delicate while another is simple and clumsy. A Golden Pheasant Resting on Hibiscus Branch is an example of the former. According to the connoisseur Xu Bangda (1911-), all extant works of the meticulous and delicate style attributed to Zhao Ji were done by anonymous court painters. Support for this judgment is found in a Southern Song catalogue in which a painting of this title is classified under "paintings with imperial inscriptions" (yuti hua) rather than under "imperial paintings" (yu hua). The classification suggests that the Emperor inscribed a painting that was executed by a highly accomplished court artist.
Of all rulers in Chinese history, Emperor Huizong was perhaps the one who was most fascinated by calligraphy and paintings. During his reign, he launched an extensive campaign of collecting painting and calligraphic masterpieces, and ordered the compilation of two imperial catalogues - Painting Catalogue of the Xuanhe Period (Xuanhe huapu) and Calligraphy Catalogue of the Xuanhe Period (Xuanhe shupu). In establishing the Painting Academy (hanlin tuhua yuan) for artistic creations, he followed his own aesthetic tastes.
The objects in the painting are "double-outlined" to give a precise representation. The bent branch shows the bird's weight. The coloration is bright and luxurious, consistent with the style of Song dynasty. The bird occupies the diagonal line of the painting, with flowers and butterflies distributed around, appropriately leaving space for inscriptions.