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A native of Shucheng county in today's Anhui province, Li Gonglin was a prominent painter of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). He earned his "presented scholar” (jinshi) degree during the Xining reign (1068-1077) of Emperor Shenzong (r. 1068-1085). He was later promoted Gentleman for Court Service (chaofeng lang). An erudite antiquarian, Li delighted in collecting ancient bronze objects, paintings, and calligraphy. He is particularly renowned for equestrian paintings, figures, and works of Buddhist and Daoist themes. His monochrome brush drawings were considered unrivalled among his contemporaries.
Consisting of over 140 figures and 1200 horses, this scroll is Li Gonglin's remake of a painting by Tang-dynasty (618-907) painter Wei Yan. The over four-meter long scroll unfolds from right to left with the thousand-plus horses trotting into a rugged steppe, guided by a great number of herders. The painter depicted a boisterous scene with mixed neighing and bawling. From the middle of the scroll, the horses disperse into different groups, some grazing on the meadow, some chasing each other, some galloping, some rolling on the ground, and some strolling away to drink at a distant river. Horses in a great variety of postures are all vividly delineated, rendering the scene lively and idyllic. Mounted or on foot, some herders are well-dressed, and others bare-chested. The herders resting under shady trees are Khitan people who seem to reflect a social hierarchy. The tensely-composed, closely-knit first half of the scroll is balanced by the loose and scattered scenes of the second half, creating a beautiful compositional rhythm.
Both the herders and the horses are delineated with steady and forceful monochrome brush lines and touched with color. The rocks are slightly textured with diluted ink, and then tinted with umber pigment, adding to the imposing atmosphere. Cleverly-arranged highlights against carefully-depicted background scenes help to avoid chaotic and dull repetitiousness. Even though it is a remake, the lengthy, intricately detailed composition would not have been possible without Li Gonglin's painstakingly craftsmanship and virtuosic artistic skills.
A majority of Li Gonglin's original creations are ink monochrome paintings on paper. Yuan-dynasty (1271-1368) painting critic Tang Hou (act. early 14th c.) wrote in his On the Assessment of Paintings (Hua jian) that Li Gonglin "used silk as ground and applied pigments only when copying ancient paintings”. That this scroll is painted on silk and lightly colored is in accord with the historical record. Since no authentic work by Wei Yan has survived, Li Gonglin's remake allows us to glimpse Wei's artistic style.
The self-inscription reads "I, Li Gonglin, copied Wei Yan's Imperial Horses at Pasture at Imperial Command”. Attached are an imperially-inscribed poem by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), a colophon by Zhu Yuanzhang, Emperor Taizu (r. 1368-1398) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and a short inscription by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795).