Wang Xi 
China, active mid 14th century, Yuan dynasty

In this intimate garden scene, a pair of sparrows, harbingers of good fortune, chatter among tall plants. One sparrow is standing on a rock; the other bird hangs from the bamboo. Above them, forming a canopy, is a white hibiscus, symbol of wealth and splendour, and amaranth, an autumnal plant with green and red foliage. Springing from the earth at the base of the rock is low vegetation, including a red flowering plant. Above the sparrow on the rock, another clump of bamboo is indicated. At the centre of the composition is a stream with receding banks, suggesting a landscape.

Wang Xi, whose seal is located at the lower left-hand corner of the painting, was a scholar-official who served at the imperial court of the Shundi emperor of the Yuan dynasty (1280–1368). Wang Xi was also an accomplished painter and a great admirer of paintings by Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). A great patron of the arts and the leading painter within his own court, the Song emperor was obsessed with fidelity to nature in painting and had insisted that his court academy painters should accurately represent the natural world.

As a court official, Wang Xi had access to Song paintings in the imperial collections. Wang Xi’s approach to nature in the Gallery’s new scroll painting reflects the influence of Emperor Huizong. The birds and plants are portrayed with naturalistic details based on direct observation of the natural world. The images are carefully outlined with ink and shaded with naturalistic ink and colour pigments. There is also great precision in the artist’s approach to botanical details, which identify the semi-tropical plants as natives of southwestern China. The foliage of the plants creates a crowded and complex composition, thus mirroring the complexity of nature itself.

Although inspired by the courtly ‘bird and flower’ paintings of the Northern Song academy, Wang Xi’s painting is imbued with a cool stillness that imparts to it a Yuan flavour. This rare fourteenth-century work is possibly the earliest in the Gallery’s collection of Chinese scroll paintings.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator of Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).