In Ren Xiong’s 19th-century self-portrait, he shows himself frontally, looking outward with a penetrating gaze in an almost confrontational manner. His hands are clasped above his waist. The thick vertical lines of his pants rise upwards to meet at his hands, giving the impression that they rest on a sword. His robe slips off his shoulders, and we see that he is young and muscular. The naturalism of his upper torso and face imbue the painting with a physicality, as if he is ready to fight. His hands, and especially his feet, are larger proportionally, and his robes seem enormous. The distortion of proportions adds to the monumentality of his stature. We could describe Ren’s self-portrait as filled with dramatic contrasts.
This captivating self-portrait tells us a great deal about the principles of Chinese painting, the roles of self-portraiture and portraiture, and the canon of Chinese art. It also offers a window into how the artist was at the center of the changing world in Shanghai, as the Qing Dynasty fell, wars ravaged China, and the country rapidly modernized.
His painting also offers a way for us to think about modernity in a global sense. Ren’s dramatic self-portrait indicates that he is not merely an artist concerned with his craft, but rather a man concerned with self-expression—of communicating his trauma amid a rapidly changing world. Ren painted his portrait before the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty). His self-portrait is breathtaking and bold; it suggests that the artist saw himself as living in the eye of the storm—and taking a modern and self-aware stance. His confrontational manner can also be read as tormented, a representation that fits with what we know about his life and the tragic period in which he lived—civil war amid the rise of Shanghai as a cosmopolitan, international port city.
Shanghai opened as a treaty port in 1842 as a result of the first Opium War, a foreign crisis between China and the British over opium smuggling. Just as an influx of foreigners was shaping the cultural landscape of the city, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) broke out, destroying the way of life for China’s scholar-gentry class, the literati, especially those living in and around Shanghai. This uprising began when an ethnic Han Chinese man named Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself the brother of Jesus Christ, and sought to establish a Heavenly Kingdom and overthrow the Qing dynasty. When the Qing dynasty failed to suppress the rebellion quickly, the scholar gentry organized regional armies to defend its property, families, and culture. Refugees fled to Shanghai, and the population swelled. Ren fought alongside imperial troops in the Taiping Rebellion. Having gone to battle in what became the bloodiest civil war in world history, Ren was undoubtedly aware that death could come at any moment. This portrait certainly stands as much as a statement in life as in death.
Ren may have painted his portrait to be displayed during his lifetime and to show how he wished to be remembered after his death. In fact, death was not far off for Ren, who died in his mid-thirties of tuberculosis.
The principles of the painting
The brushwork in the painting shows the different ways that Ren uses the art of the line to his advantage. He has depicted his face using meticulous, detailed brushwork. This is in striking contrast to the fluid, thick, bold black lines of his robes. There is also an extensive calligraphic inscription on the left, which could be considered the backbone of the painting by linking the pictorial and poetic content. For instance, the angular lines of Ren’s robes complement the sharp strokes of his calligraphy, suggesting that Ren is expressing himself in both visual and written forms. The painting’s color palette is minimalistic, primarily composed of pale, cool blue-gray ink washes that soften the stark, calligraphic lines and add an ethereal, otherworldly sensibility to Ren’s self-portrait.
The painting is over five feet tall, further giving the artist a larger-than-life impression. It is in a typical Chinese painting format and medium: ink and colors on paper mounted on a hanging scroll. This is a public format, meant to be unfurled and displayed on a wall, but it was not necessarily decorative. More likely, this striking portrait would have been viewed at specific moments by the artist and his intimate acquaintances, perhaps it served as a remembrance of the artist.
Self-portraiture, artistic status, and identity
Artists like Ren Xiong used self-portraits to assert their status and as a method of self-fashioning—in other words, using self-portraits to show how they would like to be perceived. They are not always especially marketable, but are often made by artists for themselves or even to share with friends.
There are noticeable conventions for self-portraiture in Ren’s painting. If we compare Ren’s portrait to an image believed to depict the 17th-century artist Chen Hongshou, we notice that in both the artist has chosen to show himself facing frontally, looking outward with a piercing gaze and standing confidently.
Differences exist between these two self-portraits however, and the differences offer a clue into what Ren wanted to convey about himself in his time. Unlike in Chen’s image, Ren does not incorporate any landscape or other conventional accompanying attributes, such as pine trees or garden rocks. Chen uses stylized brushwork of undulating lines on both robes and the facial features, whereas Ren adopts contrasting styles of brushwork in his portrait.
Chen was also a professional artist, meaning that he painted for a living rather than merely for leisure, and in this picture he was self-consciously reflecting the portraiture conventions of his time—this was a novel statement in the 17th century. Ren builds on the concept of artistic status and identity in his self-portrait—he uses painting to make a powerful statement about his personal crisis as an artist and civilian in wartime, and that of the rapidly modernizing world around him. In that way we can see how Ren embodies his experience of a moment in time, appearing distinct from all his worldly attributes and yet wrestling with the weight of his existence.
The history of portraiture in China and its memorializing functions
It is important that we consider how Ren’s self-portrait fits into the broader genre of portraiture in China, a history that can be traced to early tomb paintings. Portraits serve a variety of purposes, including commemoration and memorialization. Portraits are a way of remembering a sitter for posterity. In China, portraits can also be used to venerate a person. Portraits may be displayed on annual celebrations, such as Lunar New Year, to honor deceased ancestors and celebrate the family lineage through notable attributes such as rank and age.
If we compare Ren’s portrait to one of the Ming dynasty emperor Hongzhi, we can see how Ren engages with deep-seated cultural ideals and functions that underlie portraiture in imperial China. The imperial portrait shows how the veneration of the image of the deceased is part of ancestral worship in China. In it we see the artist has given careful, fine-lined attention to the face, which is then coupled with a schematized body and robe bearing imperial insignia. At the court, different artists painted the face and body. The contrast between face and body was intended to show the otherworldliness of the emperor and his high status as an ancestor—the most revered position. Old age is the ideal, and ancestorhood is a cause for reverence.
Ren draws on these portraiture conventions, with the accuracy of his face and his schematized body. The self-portrait advertises his skill as a professional artist, demonstrating his handling of the brush through both detailed modeling on the face and bold, angular brushwork on the body. He was also likely aware of the realistic aims of photography, for portrait studios and photographic agencies abounded in 19th-century Shanghai. The attention he pays to his own face is also rooted in Chinese concerns about facial physiognomy; the face was a reflection of the individual. For this reason it was important that artists display accuracy for veneration after death.
The ordinary man and unsung heroes
The painting’s inscription is key to the understanding of Ren’s self-image as one of disillusionment. It is written in a candid tone, using the meter of the dramatic kunqu theater popular at the time. It begins: “With the world in turmoil, what lies ahead of me?” Then, he goes on to point out that artists so frequently note the paragons of history, but no mention is made of the common/ordinary man. At the same time that he painted this portrait, Ren was creating woodblock prints of ancient heroes that relate to issues of lowly status (such as the rebels portrayed in the twelfth-century novel, Water Margin attributed to Shi Nai’an). It is as if he is arguing for the unsung heroes, like himself, in the painting’s inscription and through the very act of depicting himself here.
The Shanghai School and the canon of Chinese art
Ren is often described as a Shanghai School artist. The term “Shanghai School” typically refers to professional artists loosely based in or around Shanghai in the late 19th century. It was originally a derogatory term that was as much about popular tastes in the art market, theater, and entertainment in Shanghai (likely to distinguish these pleasures from other fine arts) as it was the artists and the many social connections among them. They were for that reason very much at the center of social change. Shanghai School artists often created works that catered to city dwellers in the newly opened, commercial port city. There is no singular style that defines artists of the Shanghai School. Their works combined both meticulous and more spontaneous sketch styles. Their subject matter veered toward the popular (such as figures) and away from sophisticated, poetic subjects such as landscape paintings. They tended to depict the mundane or everyday subjects rather than the aloof or idealized.
Describing Ren as a Shanghai School artist raises questions about the canon of Chinese art. The term “schools” is often used to describe artists and their lineages, and sometimes the connections between them. Yet the definitions are not consistent. For example, Ren Xiong likely did not paint this self-portrait in Shanghai, but more likely in his hometown in Zhejiang province. It does not appear that he created this work for sale, further differentiating it from many other works characterized within the Shanghai School. Finally, the subject is neither popular nor mundane, but rather an intimate, deeply emotional portrayal of the artist himself.
Ren, while associated with other artists active in Shanghai, appears to have painted his Self-Portrait as a provocative image. He asks the viewer to confront who he is as an artist and member of society, picturing himself here with a frontal gaze and forceful brushwork, and with an unusual self-awareness as an artist in this tumultuous period of history.
A man of his time
In The Painter of Modern Life, the 19th-century French writer Charles Baudelaire distinguished the artist as “a specialist, a man wedded to his palette like the serf to his soil,” from the “man of the whole world,” whose interest is to understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe.  Ren was not removed from society, but very much immersed in it. He conceived of himself as living among the common man—his inscription literally called for the recognition of the ordinary people who shape history (quite literally in his case, as a civilian fighter and as a professional artist). His self-portrait is a powerful portrayal of a “man of the world” in 19th-century China.
 Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 7.