Frogs and Tadpoles

As exemplified by this folding fan, Qi Baishi created an original and entirely unique style of painting. His works reflect an undeniable freshness and strong appeal to modern sensibilities: simple, natural, and direct, possessing a naïve and almost casual spontaneity.

Born on January 1, 1864, to a peasant family in semirural Xiangtan, Hunan Province, Qi moved to Beijing permanently in 1917, where he became one of the leading modernist artists in the capital. He accepted a teaching position at the Beijing Art School in 1927, but resigned at the beginning of the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–45). During the Japanese occupation, Qi refused to receive official visitors or market his works openly. After the war, he resumed exhibiting and teaching, and upon the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, he became one of the most highly honored artists in the country.

Proving himself equally adept at depicting humans, animals, landscapes, and floral and botanical subjects, Qi addressed an unusually broad range of popular subject matter. Since his early years, Qi had a special fondness for small creatures, which he usually depicted in groups. There were not many frogs and even fewer tadpoles in his works until the late 1930s. But from Qi’s mid-seventies on, this amphibian and its young began to feature regularly in his thematic repertoire, both separately and together.

Generally, paintings of tadpoles are associated with a wish for numerous progeny; but in this fan Qi seems to have had something different in mind. Across the top of the painting, the artist wrote the following in standard script: “Frogs sing in the shallow waters of a clear creek. Old Man Baishi Qi Huang, jiashen [1944], eighty-four.” From this we know that Qi painted the fan in Beijing during the war. As with other rustic imagery in Qi’s late works, the theme here may reflect an aging man’s nostalgia for his childhood home in the watery Hunan countryside and an easier, less constrained time in his life.

Elected president of the China Artists Association in 1953, Qi continued to paint, write, exhibit, and publish until his death in Beijing on September 16, 1957, at the age of ninety-three.

Qi Baishi (1864–1957)
China, Modern period, 1944
Folding fan; ink and color on paper
Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth
Freer Gallery of Art F2017.1