The God of Longevity, With Attendant

Ren Yi

Gallery 13,
The Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery of Chinese Painting

 


Focus on the Object

The Artist

Ren Yi (1840-1896) moved to Shanghai in 1868 where he became the leading figure of the ‘Shanghai School’.
This term describes a set of painters working in Shanghai who broke away from the accepted 19th-century style of painting. Purchasers in Shanghai had tastes which allowed artists to break from art historical tradition, as they were often merchants or from abroad.

Previously, landscape was the dominant subject matter and colours were largely restrained. Ren Yi was well known for depicting unusual subjects, such as heroes from theatre and legend, painted in an exaggerated manner.

His pupil Wu Changshuo, who added the calligraphy to this painting, was also a painter and seal carver.

Content

The God of Longevity (Shoulao) is one of a triad of Chinese gods, along with the Gods of Salaries and Happiness. Shoulao always has the face of an old man, with a white beard and eyebrows and a large bald head. Usually he is seen leaning on a gnarled stick with the peach of immortality in his hand.

This painting also has the informal title “Winter and Spring” which may refer to the two figures: she with her youth and blossoming branch of rejuvenation and he with his old age and gnarled stick. In China, old age is not regarded negatively, but as a great blessing, and the God of Longevity is greatly honoured at the birthdays of the elderly. He is reputed to decide the date of everyone’s death – no small responsibility.

The calligraphy, added later in 1919, roughly translates as “Beauty extends the years”.