The Chinese painter Ku K'ai-chih (ca. 345-ca. 406) was the first great classical master of figure painting and portraiture.
Ku K'ai-chih, also called Ch'ang-k'ang and Hu-t'ou, was born in Wu-hsi, Chin-ling, the modern Wu-chin, in Kiangsu Province. His father was a government official who held hereditary office. Even when he was a boy, Ku's genius was apparent, and he became a skillful poet and musician, as was the fashion among the aristocracy of the time. Although nothing is known of his early training as a painter, his skill and originality soon led the influential premier, Hsieh An, to declare, "There has been nothing like it since the birth of man!" Ku held a number of government posts, and hence as scholar, poet, painter, and official he epitomizes the Chinese ideal of the true gentleman who is learned in all things but solely devoted to none of them.
Prior to the 4th century, painting served a utilitarian and didactic purpose, and painters were regarded as craftsmen, not artists. Ku K'ai-chih was among the first masters who attempted to advance the boundaries of the art and redirect its purposes. He regarded painting as a form of literate communication and as a true art in every way equivalent to the established arts of poetry and calligraphy. By penetrating beneath surface appearance to seize the inner essence of individuals, he sought to "convey the spirit" of man through portraiture and figure narratives. This pursuit of qualities lying beyond form and verbal definition marks the beginning of painting as a fine art in China.
In portraying his friend Hsieh K'un, who felt ill at ease in the confines of court, for example, Ku K'ai-chih placed him among the hills and valleys, the landscape of his mind, in order to suggest the character of the man. As a rule, Ku believed that the spirit is conveyed through the eyes, the mirror of the soul, and accordingly he waited until the portrait was otherwise finished before dotting the pupils, an act which seemed to him to bring the work to life. Among his most famous works was his portrait of the lay disciple of the Buddha, Vimalakirti, whom he conceived not as a remote figure from a holy book but as an old and sick Chinese scholar conveying a powerful and haunting image of humanity.
Ku K'ai-chih is best represented today by the oldest Chinese painting attributed to a known master, the Admonitions of the Instructress to the Ladies of the Court. In this hand scroll, precepts offered to young ladies serving the Emperor are accompanied by historical and metaphorical illustrations beautifully and wittily conceived by the painter. Light color overlies the delicate brushwork, described by Chinese critics as "like the silken thread emitted by the spring silkworm." The slender, lovely women, gentle brush-work, and curving drapery drifting out from the figures as if to suggest movement are characteristics of his style. They are seen as well in two other paintings attributed to the master, Biographies of Virtuous Women and the Spirit of the Lo River, the latter surviving in several copies.
The esthetic quality of Ku K'ai-chih's work is best described by the painter's own explanation of his taste. He loved to eat sugarcane, he said, but he always began at the wrong end because he liked "to enter gradually into paradise." His painting is restrained and unassuming, without extremes of gesture or expression. But its graceful spirit and gentle humanistic flavor have enabled it to endure for 1,500 years as the classical fountainhead of Chinese painting.
Ku K'ai-chih's official biography, Annals of the Chin Dynasty, was published as Biography of Ku K'ai-chih, translated and annotated by Chen Shih-hsiang (1953). In 1966 the Trustees of the British Museum released a color facsimile scroll of the Admonitions of the Instructress of the Ladies in the Palace (or, to the Ladies of the Court). The accompanying booklet by Basil Gray is a good account of the painter and his work. Ku is discussed in the standard background reference in English, Osvald Siren, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles, vol. 1 (1956).