Han Huang (韓滉) was a Chinese painter from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). But he was also a high ranking court official under a range of Chinese Tang Emperors. Han painted “Five Oxen (五牛圖)” and it is said that in this painting he shows to the Emperor his loyalty and hardworking dedication, like the loyalty of an ox serving his master. Painted 1250 years ago, this is the oldest painting on paper and one of the top ten Chinese masterpieces of art.
The painting was owned by many Chinese Emperors, who according to tradition put their seals on the painting. Those are the red stamp marks. This is adding historical importance to the painting and shows its provenance. Some Emperors also wrote poems and added these to the painting. It became a handscroll of 140cm long, and just 21cm high. The painting was kept in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, but stolen in 1860, when the Palace was looted and burnt down. In the 1950s the handscroll resurfaced at a Hong Kong auction house and the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai immediately ordered the purchase of the painting and the return to Beijing. It’s now kept in Beijing’s Palace Museum.
Oxen, or cattle in general, are a universal symbol of wealth. In agricultural nations, cattle are the foundation of society; providers of strong labor, milk and meat, and they stand for prosperity and economic development. Look at this 1650 painting by Aelbert Cuyp, a leading landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age. This painting is more than just a pastoral scene. These cows are symbolizing abundance and wellbeing. The people who bought Cuyp’s paintings had invested substantial capital in canalization and draining the Dutch wetlands. They increased their wealth from exploiting the new agricultural land. And that means cows! This work is expressing the quintessence of Dutch agricultural richness and wealth.
Here are a few prints by the famous Dutch cattle painter Paulus Potter (1625 – 1654). These are from his “Bullenboekje” from 1650, a booklet with cows and oxen. Portrayed almost as human beings. As ourselves!