Cormorants by the Reed
Lin Liang was one of the foremost Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) painters of flowers and birds. Born in Guangdong, he became a painter for the imperial court in the latter half of the 15th century, and eventually reached the highest ranks of court painters. Lin Liang specialized in simple depictions using only water and ink, without relying on extravagant colors. He often painted birds such as hawks, wild geese, and cormorants, and is highly praised for his rapid and unorthodox brushwork. Lin Liang was also in contact with the literati of his day, and his ink paintings of flowers and birds may have influenced later literati artists.
In this painting, two cormorants linger at the water’s edge. One is puffing up its feathers slightly, has its eyes half-closed, and is arranging its feathers with its beak. The other is raising its head, with its sharp beak pointing slightly upward, and appears to be searching for distant prey. Outlines are used only for the eyes and beaks. Soft feathers are depicted with a sense of depth using ink gradation of varying intensity, a technique that Lin Liang specialized in. Behind the cormorants is a thick growth of reeds. Lin painted their leaves in blurry strokes using only the tip of the brush, and varying degrees of forcefulness, a technique said to resemble crab legs. This rapid speed in which he painted this scene is another one of its highlights.
An inscription on the interior surface of the lid of the box in which this painting was originally stored declares it to be a treasured possession of Minehime, the principle wife of Tokugawa Narinobu, the eighth head of the Tokugawa family branch in Mito Domain, present-day Ibaraki prefecture. Many of Lin Liang’s ink wash paintings of flowers and birds were brought to Japan, where they were received with great enthusiasm.