Although Zhang Daqian’s lotus paintings are not uncommon, there exists only two examples that feature both his gold-outlined red lotuses and meticulously painted mandarin ducks. The first one was treasured in the Meiyuntang Collection and was dedicated to the artist’s good friends Gao Lingmei and Zhan Yunbai. This second example was gifted to an entrepreneur who was an important sponsor of the artist while he was in Dunhuang, Mr Li, and his wife. Red Lotus and Mandarin Ducks was painted during the summer of guiwei year (1943), right at the time when Zhang Daqian left Dunhuang to return to Chengdu. The span of two years and seven months in Dunhuang proved to be a pivotal experience in his development. Emerging from Zhang Daqian’s artistic renaissance were examples of his most exquisite and magnificent meticulous bird-and-flower paintings of the 1940s during the artist’s prime.
While the painting spans nearly six feet tall and features a challenging composition, the artist is able to ingeniously portray the subject in a prolific and balanced manner. Zhang Daqian uses the boneless painting technique to arrange the overlapping foliage, while the lotus leaves painted with varying shades of ink emphasize the sense of three dimensionality as if the leaves sway with the wind. The red lotuses are accentuated with gold outlining, a technique that is both time-consuming and resource-draining, and thus not commonly seen in the artist’s oeuvre. This meticulous technique contributes to the incomparable splendorous and majestic aura of the painting. Red Lotus and Mandarin Ducks brings to mind a well-known saying by Yang Wanli of the Southern Song dynasty: “Lotus leaves towards the horizon in endless green; Lotus blossoms bathed in sunlight in peerless red.”
Under the lotus leaves are a pair of mandarin ducks tranquilly perched in parallel, rendered with meticulous brushstrokes and rigorous use of colour. According to the inscription on the version formerly owned by Meiyuntang, for this composition, Zhang Daqian imitated the painting technique of Huang Quan from the Five Dynasties period. As an imperial court painter, Huang exceled at painting flowers, bamboo, and birds. Through his practice of sketching live birds in a vivid and realistic manner, he developed the xiesheng or lifelike style and brought it to its height. While Zhang Daqian abandoned the fine bird-and-flower painting techniques from the Ming and Qing dynasties, he looked towards the styles from and before the Song-Yuan periods, further paving the way to develop his original style and expression
Compared to that of the Meiyuntang version, the inscription on Red Lotus and Mandarin Ducks is even more expressive and poignant, “Love who you love; true love knows no bounds,” in which the artist includes an opportune homonym of the word ‘lotus’. This painting of lotuses and the mandarin ducks, which have been historically seen as loyal animals, were dedicated to Mr Li and his wife as an intimate gesture of Zhang’s best wishes for the couple.
With its large-scale and rare composition, this specially-dedicated masterpiece for the Lis reveals a deep and touching message from the artist, and thus it has been an important and cherished work in the family. Treasured for seventy years in private hands, this masterpiece is a prime model for understanding Zhang Daqian’s accomplishments in flower-and-bird painting.