Qi Baishi: telling stories through brushstrokes
Anyone familiar with Chinese art history would be familiar with Qi Baishi (1864-1957), the renowned painter whose whimsical depictions of common objects and creatures made him a darling among collectors and art aficionados. Largely self-taught, Qi Baishi painted everything from animals to scenery to figures to vegetables. He was particularly fond of painting shrimps, fish, crabs, frogs, insects and peaches, which he rendered using heavy ink, bright colors and vigorous strokes that express his love of nature and of life.
Qi Baishi was not born into privilege – not by a long shot. He grew up in a large peasant family in Xiangtan, Hunan, as a sickly child who only attended public school for one year. At the age of 14 he decided to become a carpenter, but when he discovered a copy of the book Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, it sparked a desire in him to create art. He initially painted the human form, recruiting anyone he knew to pose for him. Later on, he received formal training in the gongbi mode, which emphasized fine brushwork and meticulous detail, and his subject list expanded.
He was taught that every aspect of painting mattered, from the subject matter to the way the ink was applied to the paper. Subsequent mentors steered Qi Baishi toward landscapes, which he executed with precision. Although he was trained in gongbi, he abandoned the approach and started painting in the freely expressive xieyi (“sketching thoughts”) style. He once said, “Paintings must be something between likeness and unlikeness, much like today’s vulgarians, but not like to cheat people.” He focused on life’s smaller things and not the larger landscape.
Qi Baishi was not his real name; he was born Qi Huang, but chose Baishi (Chinese for “white stone”) as a pseudonym. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he ventured beyond his home province to see and experience more of China. Already adept at the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving (he once described himself as “the rich man of three hundred stone seals”), he came upon the Shanghai School, which was popular at the time, and was taken under the wing of Wu Changshuo, who inspired many of Qi’s subsequent works. About 15 years later, another influential teacher, Chen Shizeng, mentored him until he finally settled down in Beijing, in 1917.
Tommy Curtis, the president of Lauren Gallery in Roswell, Georgia, said Qi Baishi is without a doubt one of the best-known artists in China. “He began painting while still a teenager, and with no formal training,” Curtis said. “Although Qi Baishi was best known for his painting and calligraphy, he considered his seal carvings his best work. Some of his major influences were the early Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren and the Ming dynasty artist Xu Wei.”
Qi Baishi’s works are highly prized by collectors today. “His paintings sell for between $20,000 to more than one million dollars,” Curtis said. “The value is based on the story of the painting as well as the colors and provenance. It does seem that his paintings are increasing in value.”
Mel Delzer, president of Eden Fine Antiques Galleries in Marietta, Georgia, said Qi Baishi’s works are known for their spontaneity and freshness. “Their value depends on the theme or story of the painting, the complications, the variety of colors and, of course, provenance. His paintings have been on a steady rise, excluding the 2020 pandemic market,” Delzer said.
It is estimated that Qi Baishi produced anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 distinct artworks. Of these, 3,000 are in museums. Since 1993, more than 16,000 of his paintings have appeared at auction. In 2011, an undated painting that was only attributed to him, titled Eagle Standing on Pine Tree, sold for $65.5 million. In 2017, his 1925 painting Twelve Landscape Scenes, which had solid authentication, soared to a staggering $140.8 million.