The plum plant is long-lived, and specimens claimed to be up to 1000 years old are found in many places in China. The crooked and gnarled branches of such trees, with young green shoots and flowers, are much admired. Furthermore, the physical toughness of the rugged old plum tree, which blooms in wintry desolation, merges with the ideal of the moral toughness of the superior man who lives in seclusion. This type of image is a powerful yet conventional symbol of the scholar's situation and resilience.
Such endurance and symbolism takes visual form in the painting 'Plum blossom' by Tong Yu. The artist used alias names such as Puyan, Erru and Ershu, and the sobriquets such as Zhayan and Jieanzi. A native of Shanyin (now Shaoxing) in Zhejiang province, Tong Yu won fame as a poet and a flower and bird painter, particularly of plum blossoms, during his life time. For a while, he painted plum blossoms with a poem everyday, one of his personal seals was “Wanfu meihua wanshou shi” (ten thousand paintings and ten thousand poems of plum), thus showing his passion for this specific subject. A number of such paintings are today extant.
Some sources claim that Tong’s paintings are mainly influenced by Yang Wujiu (1097-1169), a well known Southern Song painter specialising in plum blossoms. In an extant masterpiece attributed to Yang in the Palace Museum’s collection in Beijing entitled 'Four stages of blossoming plum', Yang Wujiu presents to us the plum tree as a delicate and pure image by using the finest tiny lines without colour and brush in this work. In contrast to the elegance and restraint of plum paintings of the Song dynasty, the style and technique of Tong Yu’s painting seems to reflect much more closely the influence of the later artists in Yangzhou. According to a Qing dynasty book 'Molin jinhua', he suffered from illness and died in Yangzhou. It is reasonable to assume that he would have had the opportunity to see works of the Yangzhou’s artists, and thus painted an image imbued with poetic overtones.
'The east wind releases plum blossoms at the time when mountains and streams are austere. I would like to ask the blossom nymph about those viewers - who among them understands the flower’s spirit? My brother sent someone to ask for a painting from me. So I wrote an impromptu poem [and painted this painting] to meet his request.' Ershu.
Seals: 'Tong Yu zhi yin' (Tong Yu’s seal); 'Jie an' (the artist’s studio); 'Wanfu meihua wanshou shi' (ten thousand paintings and ten thousand poems of plum)
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, February 2011.
Place where the work was made
Qing dynasty 1644 - 1911 → China
hanging scroll; ink on paper
98.7 x 39.5 cm image; 190.3 x 54.6 cm scroll
Edward and Goldie Sternberg Chinese Art Purchase Fund 2011
Where the work was made
Shown in 3 exhibitions
One hundred flowers (2011), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 01 Sep 2011–15 Jan 2012
The connoisseur and the philanthropist: 30 years of the Sternberg Collection of Chinese Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 31 Jan 2014–27 Apr 2014
Glorious, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 May 2017–2018
Referenced in 1 publication
Jackie Menzies, Look, 'One hundred flowers: Recent Asian acquisitions', pg. 34-35, Sydney, Nov 2011, 34 (colour illus.).