Image: 12 5/8 x 163 9/16 in. (32.1 x 415.4 cm)
Overall with mounting: 13 1/4 x 398 1/16 in. (33.7 x 1011.1 cm)
Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon, 1986
Not on view
In the Chinese popular imagination, mendicant monks, conjurers, and mysterious hermits were often thought to be disguised “living luohans,” or Buddhist holy men capable of producing miracles. When government corruption and ineptitude imperiled social order, as it did in late Ming times, such superstitious messianic beliefs became more widespread. Here, in one of his earliest extant works, Wu Bin embraced an archaic figure style and followed the tradition of depicting luohans as fantastic eccentrics whose grotesque features belie their inner spiritual nature. Wu’s humorous painting may have had a serious message: holiness can be concealed within an outwardly incongruous form.
By 1600 Wu Bin, who began painting in his native Fujian Province, had moved to the southern capital, Nanjing, where he served as a court-appointed painter specializing in landscapes and Buddhist subjects. A lifelong devotee of Buddhism, Wu entered an order of untonsured monks affiliated with the Chan Buddhist Qixia Temple in Nanjing.
In Chinese popular imagination, mendicant monks, conjurors, and mysterious hermits were often thought to be disguised “living luohans,” or Buddhist holy men capable of magic and miracles. When government corruption and ineptitude imperiled social order, as it did in late Ming times, such superstitious messianic beliefs became more widespread.
Reveling in oddity, Wu Bin’s art represents a fin-de-siècle rebellion in painting style. In The Sixteen Luohans, one of his earliest extant works, the artist has already begun to invent an eccentric archaism in figure painting that was to influence late Ming figure painters, most notably Chen Hongshou (1598–1652; acc. no. 2005.112a–l), as well as woodblock artists. The theatrical nature of the luohan figures suggests that the artist may have been inspired by popular religious dramas or festival processions.
[Maxwell K. Hearn, How to Read Chinese Paintings, Yale University Press, 2008]
Inscription: Artist’s inscription and signature (2 columns in seal script)
Painted in a guesthouse in Wenling [Quanzhou, Fujian Province] in the xinmao year of the Wanli reign era , Wu bin.