Herding Horses, Han Geng. 8th c. Tang Dynasty, National Palace Museum of Taiwan. Digitally retouched photograph, ink on silk. 

One of the most important artists working during this period was Han Kan (sic), considered to have been the supreme painter of horses. These animals were tremendously admired in China, and they were the subject of countless stories and fables extolling them as free, proud, noble creatures. A symbol of wealth and luxury, the Emperor Ming Huang— admirer of poets, painters, and beautiful women, and a keen lover of horses— had over forty thousand thoroughbreds in his stable. 

When Han Kan was called to the Court, about the middle of the 8th century, the emperor advised him to study the painting of horses under Chi’en Hung, a contemporary Court painter. Han Kan ignored the suggestion, which was the equivalent to a command. When the emperor scolded him, he replied: “I have been learning how to paint horses, and every one of the horses in the Imperial Stables has been my teacher.”

His fame increased with the passage of time so that a later critic wrote: “When Han Kan painted horses, he was truly a horse.” This was the supreme compliment, as it meant that the artist had achieved such full identification that he was able to transmit the inner spirit of the horse.”

Chinese Art, Judith and Arthur Hart Burling, 1953.  

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