EN 1.1 Dragon

Six Dragons, a scroll painting by Southern Song painter Chen Rong, fetched $48.9 million at Christie’s in New York. Why was this masterpiece so popular among collectors?

On March 15, 2017, the showroom of Christie’s was bustling during the auction Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum. Chen Rong’s Six Dragons, one of the items being offered, appealed to numerous collectors and sold for an unprecedented sum that was hailed as “record-breaking…for Chinese art.” The auctioneer started the bidding and eager bidders competed; eventually, the masterpiece was sold for $48,967,500 – many times its estimated selling price.

Since the Song dynasty, scroll paintings of dragons by Chen Rong have long been exemplary artworks sought-after by collectors. The dragons depicted by Chen Rong are so widely emulated by later generations that paintings of dragons, either made in Japan or China, inevitably show patterns with veiled references to his works.

Chen Rong outshone many of his contemporaries in creating paintings of dragons; but only a few of Chen Rong’s works have been passed down, and they are collected by the Palace Museum in Beijing, the Guangdong Provincial Museum, and the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan. However, his most famous masterpiece, Nine Dragons, was brought overseas during the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949) and is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nine Dragons, created by Chen Rong at the age of 56, is often considered the artist’s magnum opus. This scroll painting features a dragon at the center that grasps a ball, and the dragons to the right and left twist towards the center, with each exhibiting different gestures.

At the beginning, the first dragon is flying out of the cave, exposing its head and tail, to unfold the whole view of the scroll. The second dragon, shrouded in the clouds except for its head and tail, turns around to watch the first one. The third dragon is jumping from the rocky mountains into the sky, revealing its claws and teeth to give a commanding presence. The fourth dragon holds a ball and curls to protect it. The fifth and sixth are old and young dragons, with the old one – its horn gone and only a few teeth left – gazing at the young one. The seventh dragon is frolicking in the seas, and the eighth dragon is soaring amidst clouds and mists. The ninth dragon leans over the rock, looking across the view to the beginning of the scroll.

Especially noteworthy is that the painting shows cliffs drawn by “ax-cut texture” dry strokes to lend a sense of masculine strength, as well as depict the howling waves and swirling clouds and mists, with each dragon, whether old and young, having varied expressions and gestures.

The artist also wrote a poem on the painting and made an inscription at the end of the scroll – a combination of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, typical of the artworks by Chinese literati. The painting features billowing, magnificent ink-wash clouds and mists. Critics have even compared the rolling waves with the starry sky by Vincent Van Gogh, suggesting the two artists employed similar brushstrokes – proof of Chen Rong’s avant-garde painting style.

Reincarnation of the Legendary Dragon
Dragons can enlarge and shrink themselves, surge aloft or lurk in the depths. Enlarged, they create clouds and spew mist. Shrunk, they can t themselves into a granule. Aloft in the universe, they soar. Beneath the high seas, they hide.

- An excerpt from Romance of the Three Kingdoms