Top 10 Chinese paintings (V):Luoshen Appraisal Painting

By / 05-14-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Luoshen Appraisal Painting


Luoshen Appraisal Painting, 27.1 centimeters high and 572.8 centimeters long, was created by the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) painter Gu Kaizhi (348-409). The scroll is based on the famous writer of the Three Kingdoms (220-280) Cao Zhi’s article Luoshen Appraisal and housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Gu Kaizhi was born in the region that is now Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, and served as Sanqi Changshi, an advisor to the emperor in the royal court. Gu was a man of great erudition and adept at poetry and calligraphy, but he had a particular gift for painting.

Regardless of the subject matter—be it Buddha, birds or beasts—Gu was able to capture the objects’ essence. At that time, he was known as “an outstanding talent, an exquisite painter and a most-gifted nerd.”

Gu’s painting strokes are powerful, continuous and natural, just like the thread of silkworms, floating clouds and flowing water. He mastered theories of painting and authored On Paintings and Stories behind Drawing Yuntai Mountain. His theoretical proposal of “translating thoughts into objects” and “conveying the spirit by drawing the form” have had a far-reaching influence on the development of Chinese art.

Luoshen Appraisal Painting is one of Gu’s most influential works. The painting is divided into several sections, and the first part depicts Cao Zhi’s first encounter with the Goddess Luoshui (Luoshen) at Luoshui River. Cao moves forward step by step and the Goddess Luoshui, with slim shoulders and waist, descends to the earth.

The last section shows the goddess riding a dragon vehicle to leave, accompanied by her bird and fish soldiers. The goddess turns her head back to look at Cao and her unwillingness to leave and helpless facial expression can be clearly seen in the painting. It visually expresses Cao’s love for Luoshen and the futility of the attempt to transcend the boundaries between man and god.

And the tradition of romantically expressing the author’s political pursuit using “a beautiful woman and fragrant grass” (a metaphor symbolizing a patriotic person who is loyal to the throne) comes from Li Sao (Encountering Sorrow), written by Qu Yuan (approx. 342-278 BC) during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Cao’s article Luoshen Appraisal was just an emotional expression of political failure. The painting portrays Luoshen’s beautiful figure walking on water and her ambivalence about whether to leave. Mythical creatures in the painting add mysterious and romantic colors to the complete atmosphere of the scroll.

Different sections of the painting are continuous and coherent. Each section corresponds to Cao’s article and the main characters appear repeatedly on the scroll following the development of the story. Luoshen Appraisal Painting is filled with richness in color and Gu’s technique of drawing this picture is unadorned and traditional: there are no crackles on mountains, stones or trees; “people are bigger than the mountains, and there are no ripples on the water,” which is emblematic of the painting style before the early Tang Dynasty (618-907).