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Lü Ji (ca. 1429-ca. 1505), Snowy Landscape and Birds. Ming dynasty. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk, 169.6 x 90.5 cm.

In this desolate scene after a snowfall, both river and sky appear as dark as ink. Several wild ducks are huddled against the cold, with a few already asleep. Freezing sparrows and cold spotted doves perch on the branches of the drooping willow tree above. Lü Ji has here fully grasped the reality of atmosphere in this scenery, allowing the viewer to feel the cold of a winter's day. The use of brush and ink reveals Lü Ji's uncontrived and natural style. With even greater abbreviation and succinctness, it differs from his other works by adding another layer of archaic simplicity.

Lü Ji (style name Tingzhen, sobriquet Leyu), a native of Ningbo in Zhejiang, was a famous court painter of the middle Ming dynasty. Many details of his life are still unknown, so only through records of related individuals and his promotion at court can we infer that he was probably born in 1429 under the Xuande Emperor and died around 1505 under the Hongzhi Emperor. Lü Ji entered the court late under the Chenghua Emperor (r. 1465-1487) and became highly regarded by the Hongzhi Emperor (r. 1488-1505), serving in the Renzhi Palace and rising to the sinecure post for painters of Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard. At one time when he fell ill, the emperor even continued sending his regards, about which Lü Ji said of himself, "Such great benefaction is difficult to bear." The poet Hang Huai (1462-1538) in a verse entitled "Inscribed on a Painting of 'Apricot Blossoms'" from his Shuangxi Anthology included the line, "In recent times the paintings of Lü Ji are the best."

According to historical records, Lü Ji first studied the painting style of Bian Wenjin (ca. 1356-ca. 1428), an important early Ming court painter of bird-and-flower subjects. Lü also once had the opportunity to view and copy famous paintings of the Tang and Song dynasties at the residence of the Imperial Physiognomist, Yuan Zhongche (1376-1458), who hailed from the same hometown. At court Lü Ji further learned from the famous painter Lin Liang (ca. 1424-after 1500), finally developing a style of his own combining "fine-line" and "sketching-idea" manners as well as splendor and naturalness. Lü Ji excelled at rendering emotive scenes, using mostly centered brushwork rounded and upright with force, his coloring bright and beautiful but not lacking in warmth and solidity.

During his service at court, Lü Ji was often summoned to do paintings, and to meet the large numbers of works required by the court, he might have formed a studio with assistants to help complete these imperial commissions. As a bird-and-flower painter of the court greatly admired by the emperor, his works naturally became models for study, not only influencing bird-and-flower painting of the Ming and Qing dynasties, but even that from as far away as Japan. Among the surviving works to Lü Ji's name, some are collaborative efforts done with other court painters, many are by other artists who appropriated his name, while others are spurious imitations.

The imitations of Lü Ji's works are often on the subject of wild geese and ducks or egrets paired with hibiscus, willow trees, or reeds. Sometimes their style is close to the "fine-line" colorful works of Bian Wenjin, while others are more closely associated with the "sketching-idea" painting in monochrome ink by Lin Liang, revealing the atmosphere of clear beauty or hazy mists often seen in Lü Ji's works. This exhibition not only includes representative examples of Lü Ji's bird-and-flower painting but also several imitations that demonstrate the art and influence of his style. Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum