Tethered to a wooden stake, the horse in this painting appears wild-eyed and animated, its head raised with flaring nostrils and an open mouth as if it is emitting a shrill neigh. A leading court painter named Han Gan who specialized in horses is believed to have painted this portrait of “Night-Shining White,” the favored steed of the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.) emperor Xuanzong. Han rendered the imperial mount primarily in ink, attending to the plump curvature of its body while carefully detailing the fine features of its legs and head, full mane, and thin wisps of a tail. His attention to form nods to the Chinese practice of studying the physiognomy of horses, an animal often regarded as a dragon in disguise, or a celestial steed. The real mastery, however, is seen in Han’s brushwork—a prime example of representational conventions for Chinese ink painting. Numerous seals and colophons attached to the handscroll position this painting as a canonical work well into the modern era. Later artists likened Han’s sensitive portrayal of the form and spirit of horses to one’s ability to discern moral qualities in men.
Principles of Chinese painting
It is often said that Chinese painting is an “art of the line,” a statement that could readily describe Night-Shining White. With the fine hairs of his brush, Han Gan captured the fleshy body of the emperor’s favorite horse with thin lines and soft shadows, creating volume and animation, which suggests that Han had carefully observed the forms and movement of horses. Though precise, one would stop short of suggesting that it is “realistic,” for realism in Chinese painting has a slightly different association than one might find in the naturalistic or photorealistic traditions in European art. Rather, Night-Shining White seems otherworldly—as if Han captured the essence of a grand horse fit for the emperor.
The pictorial conventions of Han’s representation can be traced to theoretical premises about Chinese art, such as Xie He’s “Six Principles” of painting—described in his “Record of the Classification of Ancient Paintings,” or Guhua pinlü 古畫品錄, which dates to the sixth century. For hundreds of years, these principles guided the creation of Chinese painting:
- Spirit Resonance, which is the animation of the object, or an effort to capture its spirit.
- Bone Method, referring to the structural method governing the use of the brush.
- Reflecting the Object, which means fidelity to the form of the object.
- Corresponding to Type, referring to the application of colors to match the object.
- Division and Planning, or the proper placing of elements in the composition.
- Transmission by Conveying, which means that artists should copy ancient models to perpetuate their techniques.
In Night-Shining White, Han captured the spirit of the horse through the fluid, seemingly effortless strokes of his brush—conveying the physical strength and willful nature of the animal. There is a sparse use of color, as seen in the subtle sepia tones used to animate the horse’s eyes, with outlines in black ink to suggest that the horse is white. Though Han centrally located the horse beside the stake to which its reins are attached, one might note that the composition is otherwise devoid of landscape elements that might suggest a groundline, showing little emphasis on spatial perspective.
A painter at the Tang dynasty court, it is likely that Han had the opportunity to copy works by earlier masters, such as the seventh-century master painter, Yan Liben, who excelled in portraying horses in a similarly flat and linear mode. As the bas-relief “Autumn Dew” suggests, Yan’s drawings used long, curving lines to describe the volume and proportions of the horse with emphasis on accuracy in form and movement.
As Night-Shining White reveals, Xie He’s principles offered a set of standards or expectations that shaped the way that later artists and critics, such as Han in the 8th century, evaluated Chinese paintings. His principles also helped to form a canon of Chinese painting. Formatted as a handscroll, Night-Shining White is mounted upon a backing that can accommodate additional colophons and inscriptions as well as seals of later collectors who appreciated the work.
For instance, the ninth-century scholar and connoisseur Zhang Yanyuan added his own signature to indicate that he personally appreciated the painting. Zhang recorded the names and specialties of famous painters and paintings in “Records of Famous Paintings” (Lidai minghua ji 歷代名畫記), an endeavor that represents one of the first efforts to compile a history of Chinese art, which one might compare to the significance of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in sixteenth-century Italy. The accumulation of over a thousand years of seals and inscriptions indicates the extraordinary significance of this painting in the history of Chinese art.
Regarded as dragons in disguise, horses feature prominently in the mythology of early China. Like dragons, horses were believed to be capable of flight to the heavens; they could carry their riders to the mythical realm of the immortals. Han dynasty emperors viewed them as auspicious signs, or celestial steeds, as seen in the bronze sculpture, Flying Horse. With its long, thick neck arched and mouth open, as seen in Han’s portrayal of Night-Shining White, the horse appears to be flying. A hoof rests on the back of a swallow, its wings outstretched and head turned back as the horse appears to overtake it with the energy of a dragon.
As prized commodities, imported horses often came into China as tribute from western lands. They were a military necessity in the face of nomads in the borderlands, and useful for transportation of goods and supplies around the empire. During the Tang dynasty, horses brought the popular sport of polo from Persia via the Silk Roads, with both men and women of the court taking part. Due to their many roles, horses tended to be idealized as strong and dynamic. Typically, artists pictured emperor’s horses as white in color, like Night-Shining White.
The study of horse physiognomy further informed representations of horses, as even the tombs at Mawangdui (2nd century B.C.E.) contained texts on judging horses. The ability to judge horses has been likened to the recognition of human qualities, based on the well-known legend of a horse trainer named Bole from the 7th century B.C.E. Bole was able to judge with unfailing accuracy the qualities of a horse, such as its bone structure and proportions (rather than superficial traits like color), to identify its hidden capacities. Bole is said to have identified the mythic “thousand-li horse,” believed capable of running one thousand li (approximately three hundred miles) in a single day. Later writers and artists described Bole’s discovery of a thousand-li horse as a metaphor for recognizing human talent, likening the judging of horses to the selection of talented officials. In drawing upon the ideal physiognomy of a horse in Night-Shining White, Han’s portrayal of the imperial steed perhaps reflected favorably upon the emperor not only as a judge of horses, but also as a judge of his subjects.
The horse in modern Chinese painting
Although the seals and comments of firsthand viewers led to the canonization of Night-Shining White, the work eventually became well-known outside the court, and long after the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty. In the 20th-century Republican era, the Minister of Education Cai Yuanpei distinguished the appeal of Han Gan’s images of horses not because of their usefulness as horses, but because they were deemed aesthetically pleasing.
Horses and cows are useful to people, but nobody thinks about the cows painted by Dai Song and the horses painted by Han Gan in terms of clothing or riding.
Cai Yuanpei, “Replacing religion with aesthetic education” (Yi meiyu dai zongjiao 以美育代宗教), Xin qingnian 新青年 (New Youth) 3, no.6 (1917)
Many artists took up Cai’s quest to reform Chinese culture through the study of art, the effects of which steered the trajectory of ink painting for the following decades. Heavenly Horse by the Cantonese artist Ding Yanyong, for instance, depicts a horse with thick, bold lines of ink that appear awkwardly sandwiched into the vertical format of a hanging scroll. The image appears self-consciously amateurish, as if Ding is making a modern comment about canonical principles of brushwork and composition exemplified by Han’s iconic painting. Although it is unlikely that Ding viewed Han’s painting, he undoubtedly would have been familiar with the principles associated with this famous artist.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Ding also studied French Expressionism in Tokyo, where he found the works of Henri Matisse especially compelling. Indeed, Heavenly Horse navigates the concept of expression in both European and Chinese art, once again engaging the Chinese art of the line to convey the spirit resonance of the horse. With the braided mane and bound tail of an imperial steed, and its eyes and mouth wide open—marks of a celestial steed—Ding reimagined the fiery energy of this revered animal for a modern viewer. The artist’s inscription, painted in fluid ink in the top third of the painting, reveals that he sought to capture the spirit of the “heavenly horse” as an auspicious image in 1978, the year of the horse in the Chinese zodiac.
Since the earliest accounts of art in ancient China, portraits of horses have commanded a respected position in the canon—in part due to the significance of their subject, the horse, but also for their representational abilities. Using principles of brushwork and spirit resonance, Han’s Night-Shining White exemplifies the expressive power of the line, the backbone of Chinese painting.