Equestrian works by famed Chinese artist net $3 million

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Three Horses, by Xu Beihong, sold for $HK5.7 million.
Three Horses, by Xu Beihong, sold for $HK5.7 million. © Christie’s

Works by one of China’s most well-known painters of horses have been sold at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong recently as part of a sale of modern and contemporary ink paintings.

Three Horses, a hanging scroll in ink and colour on paper created in 1941 by Xu Beihon (1895-1953), was the highest priced lot by the artist, selling for $HK5,796,000 ($NZD640,000; $US417,000; £331,000). It and several other pieces were offered on behalf of  “a descendant of a distinguished Southeast Asian collector”, according to Christie’s.

Collector Chen Jiandun assembled an impressive collection of Chinese ink paintings throughout his life, with a particular interest in Xu Beihong, a love shared by many of his fellow Southeast Asian collectors.

Three Horses depicts the horses in various stances, a paradigmatic composition that his other versions of the same subjects are based on – an indication that this was one of his favourite original compositions.

Xu Beihong’s oeuvre consists mainly of animal subjects. Amongst the many animals he had rendered, the horse is undoubtedly his best-known subject.

Five other pieces of Xu Beihong’s work, created between 1938 to 1941, in locations including Nanjing, Singapore, India, and Malaysia, were also sold at the auction, Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings late last month. The five equine works fetched a total of $HK15,498,000 ($NZ3.03m; $US1.97m; £1.567m).

These paintings came from the period during which Xu reached his mature style and was most prolific. Horse Drinking Water was dedicated to “Madame Kunyi,” a disciple of his friend and fellow artist Gao Qifeng. Running Horse, Galloping Horse, and another Running Horse, while all employing the same subject matter, nevertheless manifest Xu’s accomplished skills at depicting the animal through different perspectives.

Galloping Horse, by Xu Beihong, sold for $HK3.27 million.
Galloping Horse, by Xu Beihong, sold for $HK3.27 million. © Christie’s

Xu displayed a predilection for painting horses early in his career, when he was emulating the animals featured on tobacco boxes. Initially, he adopted the watercolour methods and painting techniques of Giuseppe Castiglioni. He began his travel and study in Europe in 1919 and returned to China in 1927. During his time abroad, he focused on studying Realism and sketched extensively, using objects from the real world and frequented local zoos.

While he did not directly follow the stylistic approaches of his teachers Francois Flameng and Fernand Cormon, he was nevertheless influenced by the dynamism conveyed in their works. After his return to China, his art took a turn toward the traditional Chinese, where ink, colour, and paper became his most frequently used media.

As he developed his personal style, he also began to depict his horses in a highly individualized way. Using swift brushstrokes, thick lines were used to model the horse’s body; the “flying white” technique to draw its mane and tail; precise and delicate lines to delineate its features and knees. He rarely used a dry brush, wielding a saturated brush most of the time and painting quickly. He eschewed the background, directing the viewer’s gaze firmly at the horse itself. If Xu Beihong’s majestic lions symbolize the Chinese state, then his horses the individuals – embodying fuller and more urgent emotions and feelings.

Xu Beihong’s Galloping Horse fetched $HK3,276,000 ($NZ640,000), Running Horse (1938) $HK2,520,000, Horse Drinking Water $HK2,016,000, and Running Horse (1939) $HK1,890,000. Cat on Rock did not sell.

The highest priced lot of the sale was Hills in Autumn Haze, by Zhang Daqian, which fetched $HK13.65 million ($NZ2.6m; $US1.7m).

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