A Large Court Painting by Leng Mei (FL. 1700-1742), 'Children at Play'. Qing Dynasty, Yongzheng Period. Photo Sotheby's

ink and colour on silk, mounted on a stretcher
depicting a joyful scene of the 'Hundred Boys' at play, on the upper left several boys try to catch a small figure of the God of Examination Kui Xing which one of their friends holds aloft, while others are picking up lychee fruit from a tree or observing a pair of quails cavorting under a bell cage, further right several on a footbridge ride on hobby horses wearing long gowns pretending to be officials and attendants next to six others holding large canopy umbrellas or floating banners, meanwhile some are waving paper lanterns in the form of lotus, fish or crab, or lighting fire crackers around a group performing a dragon dance, another small group down in the centre play with a rabbit toy and a small cart carrying peaches, all among a lush variety of rockery, flowers and trees including windmill palm, lychee, pine, camellia, nandinia, peony, paulownia or wutong,signed Jinmen Huashi Leng Mei (‘Jinmen painter Leng Mei’) following the title Xi ying tu (‘Children at Play’) on the lower right; 114.5 by 225 cm., 45 by 88 5/8 in. Estimation15,000,000 - 20,000,000 HKD

Viewing the Painting 'Children at Play', by Leng Mei
Nie Chongzheng

I recently viewed the painting Xi ying tu ('Children at Play'), by the Qing court painter Leng Mei. This color-on-silk painting measures 114.5 by 225 cm. A huge painting with a horizontal layout and bright colors, it depicts numerous children playing amid flowers, trees, and rocks representing mountains. The painting is both busy and full, with hardly any white space. When we look carefully at the painting, we find scores of children, all boys. There is not one girl. The painting falls within the genre 'paintings of children' (baizitu) and represents the desire that the family proliferate. In the lower right corner is the painter’s signature, which reads, 'Children at Play, by the Jinmen painter Leng Mei.' 

We have historical sources on the painter Leng Mei. The Qing writer Hu Jing (1769–1845), in Guochao yuanhua lu ('Records of Court Paintings in the Present Dynasty'), notes, 'Leng Mei, whose courtesy name was Jichen, was from Jiaozhou. He painted detailed  paintings of figures. He was a student of Jiao Bingzhen.' He also lists the 18 works by Leng Mei held in the imperial palace and recorded in Shiqu baoji (a Qing imperial catalogue of paintings and calligraphy). The work Duhua ji lüe (a collection of biographies of Qing painters), by an anonymous author, writes, 'Leng Mei, whose courtesy name was Jichen, was from Jiaozhou. He painted detailed paintings of deities, buddhas, arhats, and serving ladies, excelling in each of these genres. In 1713 the court compiled Wanshou shengdian (Magnificent Record of the Emperor’s Birthday), and some of Leng Mei’s work, mostly figure paintings and building scenes, was selected for inclusion.' From these sources one can see that Leng Mei was an early-Qing court painter from Jiaozhou (located in present-day Shandong Provence). He studied painting under the painter Jiao Bingzhen. And in 1713 he helped produce the illustrations for Wanshou shengdian. In addition, it is also known that Leng Mei participated in painting the twelve-scroll Kangxi Nanxun tu ('Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour') in 1691. This is the earliest reference to his connection with the court. 

We can also supplement our knowledge of the life of the painter Leng Mei from materials of the archive of the workshop of the Qing Imperial Household Department. Strangely, during the 13 years of the Yongzheng emperor’s reign, one finds not a trace of the painter Leng Mei in the archives, but in the first year of the Qianlong emperor’s reign (1736), his name appears when he is summoned to court by imperial order and offered a position. By research and analysis, we can surmise that during the 13-year reign of the Yongzheng emperor, Leng Mei was assigned on commission to Hongli, prince of the blood. When Prince Hongli became the Qianlong emperor, Leng Mei followed him and again assumed the position of court painter. 

In the signature of some of Leng Mei’s paintings, before his name he writes the character chen (in this context, meaning 'your servant'), for example, 'Presented by your humble servant Leng Mei' or 'Presented by your servant Leng Mei.' Such a signature indicates that the painting was painted in the imperial palace specifically for the emperor. This painting, to judge from its size, was certainly not hung in the home of an ordinary person. Moreover, the signature of this painting lacks the character chen. Hence, I infer that this work was painted during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (1723-1735), when Leng Mei held a commissioned post under Prince Hongli, in which case it would be inappropriate for Leng Mei to refer to himself as chen ('your servant'). But the phrase 'the Jinmen painter Leng Mei' in the signature does reveal his status. 

We do not know when Leng Mei died, since we have not found an explicit statement in the historical sources. From the archive of the workshop of the Qing Imperial Household Department, we know that he must have passed away after 1741. At that point in time, he was already a venerable old painter.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art. Hong Kong | 09 oct. 2012 www.sothebys.com