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Xu Beihong, father of modern Chinese painting



Xu Beihong was born on July 19th, 1895 into an average family in the township of Qitingqiao of Yixing County, Jiangsu Province. His father, Mr. Xu Dazhang was a private school tutor who was good at poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Under his father’s guidance, Xu began studying Chinese painting at the age of nine and was able to assist his father in filling colors into pictures one year later. Sometimes, he followed his father to sell paintings in the surrounding townships to contribute to family income. The childhood experiences of making a hard living broadened his horizon and endeared him to the lives of the ordinary working people.
 
In 1915, the 17-year-old Xu went to Shanghai and started earning his living all by himself by making illustrations for publications and selling his own paintings, while seeking every chance to learn western arts. With the help of a few friends, he entered Zhendan University, a French Catholic university, and later was able to study arts in Japan under a sponsorship program. After his return, he began teaching at Peking University at the invitation of Cai Yuanpei.

Gallopign horse, by Xu Beihong.A government scholarship in 1919 enabled Xu to enter the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied Western oil painting and drawing. He traveled widely during his stay in Europe to observe and imitate Western art techniques at various galleries, museums, exhibitions, saloons, etc, and was able to get acquainted to accomplished masters like Pascal DAGNAN-BOUVERET who gave him instructions every week. In 1924, Xu’s oil painting “Old Woman” was selected for exhibition at the nationwide Salon des Artistes Fracis.

Xu returned to China at the age of 32, and held a number of posts at various arts institutions between 1927 and 1929, including teaching at the former Central University in Nanjing and being appointed president of Beiping Fine Arts Academy. In 1931, Xu completed his representative painting “Jiu Fang Gao” which expresses his wish for the state to attach importance to recruiting talented people. During the 1930s and 1940s, he held solo exhibitions in France, Belgium, Italy, Britain, Germany, Soviet Union, India, Singapore, etc, and organized exhibitions, both at home and abroad, of paintings by contemporary Chinese artists. Amidst the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945), he held itinerary exhibitions in Southeast Asia and donated all the proceeds to refugees in China.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Xu was appointed president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and chairman of the Chinese Artists' Association.

On September 26th, 1953, cerebral haemorrhage struck Xu and took him away. In accordance with his will, his wife, Ms. Liao Jingwen donated all his works of art, including his private collections, to the government. In the following year, his former residence at No. 53, Xinjiekou North Street, Xicheng District, Beijing, was renovated and built into the Memorial Hall of Xu Beihong, where his works are on display.
 
Xu was a master of sketches, oils, and Chinese ink painting. Though mostly in the Chinese traditional style, Xu’s works incorporated the artistic techniques of both Western and Chinese, and both classic and modern. He developed his own unique style by combining Chinese brush and ink techniques with Western perspective and methods of composition, and integrating firm and bold brush strokes with the precise delineation of form. The subjects of his works are diverse, ranging from landscape, flowers & birds, animals, figures, to historical or fairy scenes. Many of his signature works, such as Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Retainers (1930), Rescue from an Intelligent Leader (1933), Jiu Fang Gao (1931), and The Foolish Old Man Moved the Mountains (1940), brim with patriotic emotions and sympathy with the ordinary working people, manifest the immense perseverance and unyielding spirit of the Chinese nation, and express the concern of the nation in crises and the wish for a bright future. Xu is most well known for paintings of horses, lions, and roosters, giving the viewer a keen sense of vitality, strength, and uplift. The galloping horse has become the symbol of modern Chinese painting.
 
Jiu Fang Gao, by Xu Beihong
Jiu Fang Gao (1931), representative work of Xu Beihong
 
 
A modern Chinese master of arts, Xu was also an outstanding educator of arts. As he asserted on many occasions, education, rather than artistic creation, topped his agenda of work. He introduced reforms into China’s arts education, and discovered and united a number of talented artists who were to carry on his course of arts education. Qi Baishi, the world-acclaimed contemporary painter, was one of his findings, who was originally a carpenter and was later recommended and appointed by Xu Beihong as professor.

 


 

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