Who is Yì Yuánjí?

Yi Yuanji (Chinese: 易元吉; Wade-Giles: I Yüan-chi) (c. 1000, Changsha, Hunan – c. 1064) was a Northern Song Dynasty painter, famous for his attainable paintings of animals. According to Robert van Gulik, Yi Yuanji’s paintings of gibbons were particularly celebrated.

The 11th-century critic Guo Ruoxu (郭若虚) in his Overview of Painting (图画见闻志, Tuhua Jian Wen Zhi) tells this about Yi’s career:

He spent months roaming the mountains of southern Hubei and northern Hunan, watching roebucks (獐鹿) and gibbons (猿狖) in their natural environment.

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In 1064, Yi Yuanji was invited to paint screens in the imperial palace. Once this job has been completed, the Yingzong Emperor, impressed, commissioned him to paint the Picture of a Hundred Gibbons, but sadly the artiste died after painting abandoned a few gibbons. A few of his supplementary gibbon paintings have survived, and Robert van Gulik, quite up to date with the actions of this ape, comments on how naturally they see in the pictures. His other proceed includes depictions of deer, peacocks, birds-and-flowers and fruits-and-vegetables; many of them are kept in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The Monkey and Cats painting is especially charming. Van Gulik identifies the monkey as a macaque. This painting was featured upon a 2004 “Year of the Monkey” stamp from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

The image of Yi Yuanji, with his intimate knowledge of nature, has attracted attention from radical Chinese painters.

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