Zhang Daqian's Spring Clouds Amid Autumn Landscape will go under the hammer on Oct 4. (Photo provided to China Daily)
Master painter Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) was well known for having a large number of friends and students. Among them, painter Li Qiujun was special.
They got to know each other through Li's elder brother, who was one of Zhang's best friends.
They admired each other's artistic talent and became confidants, which resulted in talk about a romantic relationship.
In 1948, Zhang produced Spring Clouds Amid Autumn Landscape, a mountain-and-water ink painting featuring gongbi (meticulous brushwork), as a gift for Li's 50th birthday.
A year later, Zhang permanently departed from the mainland, and traveled and exhibited around the world before settling down in Taipei in 1976.
After leaving the mainland, he often said that he missed Li, who died in Shanghai in 1973.
Spring Clouds Amid Autumn Landscape will be auctioned in Hong Kong on Oct 4.
The painting not only marks a friendship between the two painters, but it deserves special attention because it shows Zhang at the top of his game as he sought to master the mountain-and-water style, according to C.K. Cheung, head of Sotheby's Chinese painting department.
Sotheby's will auction the work at its major autumn sale, which runs from Oct 1 to 5.
Cheung says the painting's composition and Zhang's attention to details reflect his incorporation of traditional touches, especially from Song Dynasty (960-1279) paintings, while also developing his own style.
"He laid out on the paper ranges of lofty mountains as is typical in a Song painting. But he also left blank areas so that the painting did not have a high density of subjects," says Cheung.
"He worked out shimmering river waves as neatly as a fishing net. It shows how much time and energy he invested in the painting."
For decades, Zhang was one of the world's most-popular ink artists of the 20th century.
But Cheung says it is only when the art market experiences ups or downs that quality traditional Chinese paintings like Zhang's works register a steady and outstanding performance in the markets.
"The industrious painter had a productive career, even though few high-quality works from different phases of his career are available for sale now," he says.
Meanwhile, the Chinese art market has continued to shrink since spring even though Zhang's works are doing well.
His huge splashed-ink-and-color work, Peach Blossom Spring, sold for HK$270 million ($34 million) in Hong Kong in April, setting an auction record for the artist.
Separately, at a Christie's sale of Chinese ink paintings on Sept 13 in New York, Zhang's works made seven of the top 20 sales.
Other works that have appeared in Sotheby's auctions are Zhang's Buddhist Mural Painting after Tang Artists, a figure painting inspired by his two-year study of Dunhuang cave art in the early 1940s, and the splashed-ink-and-color Sage by the Pine.
In a related development, several works by Fu Baoshi (1904-65), another master ink painter, including Warriors on the Night March, are slated to go under the hammer soon.
Fu's colored-ink painting God of Cloud and Great Lord of Fate grossed 230 million yuan ($34 million) at a Beijing auction in June.