Qi Baishi

Qi Baishi (Jan 1, 1864 – Sep 16, 1957) was an influential Chinese painter.

Born to a peasant family from Xiangtan, Hunan, Qi became a carpenter at 14, and learned to paint by himself. After he turned 40, he traveled, visiting various scenic spots in China. After 1917 he settled in Beijing.

He is perhaps the most noted for the whimsical, often playful style of his watercolor works.

Some of Qi’s major influences include the early Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren and the Ming dynasty artist Xu Wei.

His pseudonyms include Qí Huáng and Qí Wèiqīng. The subjects of his paintings include almost everything, commonly animals, scenery, figures, toys, vegetables, and so on. He theorized that “paintings must be something between likeness and unlikeness, much like today’s vulgarians, but not like to cheat popular people”. In his later years, many of his works depict mice, shrimp or birds.

He was also good at seal carving and called himself “the rich man of three hundred stone seals”.

In 1953 he was elected president of the China Artists Association. He died in Beijing in 1957.

Wang Chao-Wen said that while Baishi was talking to a student in Beijing, he saw an outline of a bird on a brick floor in muddy water. He goes on to say that not everyone would have seen the bird, but because Baishi was always concerned with finding new images to paint, he had a “special sensitivity” (p. 129). It was said that Baishi had something special about him because he was constantly thinking about painting and had such a strong drive and motivation to be a great artist.

Excerpts from Qi Baishi’s journal demonstrate the strong passion and conviction he had for his work. From the article “An Appreciation of Chi Pai-Shi’s Paintings,” (Baishi was previously known as Chi Pai-Shi) his journal entry reads as follows:

“When I cut seals I do not abide by the old rules, and so I am accused of unorthodoxy. But I pity this generation’s stupidity, for they do not seem to realize that the Chin and Han artists were human and so are we, and we may have our unique qualities too… Such classical artists as Ching-teng, Hsueh-ko and Ta-ti-tzu dared to make bold strokes in their paintings, for which I admire them tremendously. My one regret is that I was not born three hundred years ago, for then I could have asked to grind ink or hold the paper for those gentleman, and if they would not have me I should have starved outside their doors rather than move away. How wonderful that would have been! I suppose future generations will admire our present artists just as much as we admire these men of old. What a pity that I will not be there to see it!” (Wang Chao-Wen p. 130-131)
What is unique about Baishi is that his work shows no western influences, unlike most other artists at this time. Other artists praised Baishi for the “freshness and spontaneity that he brought to the familiar genres of birds and flowers, insects and grasses, hermit-scholars and landscapes” (Xiangtan, p. 2). Although Baishi wasn’t the first artist to focus on small things in nature, he was highly recognized for his thoughtful and lyrical approach in depicting these subjects.

Forgery and misattribution of Qi Baishi’s work has become common in the contemporary art market. He is estimated to have produced between 8,000 and 15,000 distinct works throughout his life, of which 3,000 are in museums; however, since 1993, auction houses have attempted to sell over 18,000 distinct works attributed to him. A painting attributed to him, Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, was sold for 425.5 million yuan ($65.5 million) in 2011, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction. However, doubts over the painting’s authenticity were later raised by the bidder.