A Ming Dynasty Painting of a Female Attendant

Ink, gouache, mineral pigments and gesso on stucco

China, early Ming Dynasty (15th century)

31-1/2 x 16-1/2 inches (40-1/2 x 25-1/2 w/frame)

Ex. Joseph Klein (1899-1987, New York, New York)

Overall excellent condition.


The celestial immortal walks on a promenade astride a balustrade overlooking trees and grasses. She wears beaded jewelry, an elaborate headdress and multiple layers of decorated robes and scarves. In her hands she carries a scholar’s stone on a tray. The smooth, fleshy face has exaggerated chubby cheeks and chin, elegantly stylized and pursed lips. Her eyes are set in elongated, almond-shaped lids and well-shaped arched brows.


This remarkably lively painting with the swirling and turbulent robes that envelops the attendant evoke the traditional paintings of Buddhist imagery and religious figures as done by the Tang Dynasty master painter Wu Tao-tzu. The best known and best-preserved examples are in the Dunhuang cave temples of Gansu province. Most of the cave paintings were created during the Song (10th-13th century), Jin (12th-13th century) and early Ming (14th-17th century) dynasties in the form of temple frescoes, such as this example.


Wu Tao-tzu is said to have painted some 300 frescoes during his lifetime in the 8th century. His compositions amazed and awed those who saw them; the figures so vital that were some reputed to have come alive. All of these paintings have disappeared or cannot be identified, though his legacy remains.


The painting is from a depiction of the “Water and Land Ritual” which was a Buddhist rite developed for universal salvation. The ritual was to establish merit for both the living and the souls of the dead “on land and sea” in the netherworld. This ostentatious ritual was performed for imperial family members and high officials from the Song to the Ming dynasties and drew large crowds.


This would have been part of a much larger processional image. Frequently, compositions were usually similar with a bisymmetric arrangement of deities with a large figure of an enthroned Buddha, or possibly, a Bodhisattva, holding the dominant central position. On either side, a secondary Bodhisattva was enthroned with various lesser deities and attendants standing in adoration, some with gifts of flowers, fruits or incense, with angels floating through the upper heaven.


An Early Ming Dynasty Painting of a Female Attendant (15th century)