Known as one of the “Eight Eccentrics of Yanzhou,” Li Fangying (1696–1755) is ranked with Jin Nong (1687-1763) as a great painter of plum blossoms. This work dates from 1754 (Qianlong 19), near the end of his life when he lived by selling his paintings.
Li Fangying’s also used the name Qingjiang, as well as several aliases Qiuzhong, Yibai Shanren, Jieyuan Zhuren, and more. He was from Tongzhou in Yangzhou prefecture (present-day Nantong, Jiangsu), and held successive positions as prefectural governor of Shandong Province, Le’an Prefecture and Anhui Province, Hefei Prefecture, but in 1751 (Qianlong 16), after his second impeachment, he settled down in the north of Huaiqing Bridge in Jinling (present-day Nanjing), where he rented a flower park from the Xiang clan, a family with hereditary status in the region. He named the park Jieyuan (Rented Park), where he sold his paintings to eke a meager existence.
This album was painted in this park. In Jinling, he became deep friends with the poet Yuen Mei (1716-1797), who led the Xingling school, and Shen Feng (n.d.), a scholar of seal stones. Despite his impoverished existence, many of the titles of his works display exuberance for painting, the album displayed here being one. Inscribed on the first painting is: “Within the steel branches, ice, flowers, and snow, the opening of spiritual pleasure.” The collector’s seal on the fourteenth painting belonged to a fellow painter and acquaintance, Luo Pin (1733-1799), and contains the inscription, “The Rare Collection of the Master of the Two Peaks,” attesting to his former ownership of the album.
Li Fangying follows the three standard compositions for paintings of plum blossom: branches spreading from above, soaring from below, and branches that are bent or twisted and placed horizontally. Nevertheless, he has exaggerated the calligraphic strokes that turn down sharply and has made use of watery ink, which creates a sense of depth in the painting. Despite adhering to the classical painting models for plums, his works display a distinct freedom with the ink he uses.
The calligraphy for the album’s title slip is by Nagao Uzan (1864–1942), a Taisho to early Showa-period scholar of Chinese.