Ma Quan was a remarkable woman who is best known for her paintings of butterflies. She is often cited as one of the eighteenth century’s famous female artists, alongside Yun Bing and Jiang Jixi. All born into elite families, these painters specialized in fanciful renderings of garden flowers and butterflies, skillfully executed in fine detail. Ma’s realistic depiction of her subjects is reminiscent of Song dynasty traditions, where flowers, insects, and birds emerged as important objects of study. Complementing these depictions of the natural world are associations between women and flowers--as mentioned in countless poems, stories, and legends. Some artists even went as far as merging human and flora, and, through the depiction of beautiful women as flowers formed inseparable associations between the two. Many female artists specialized flower or butterfly paintings, in part due to stereotypical notions that drew together women and flowers.
Ma Quan’s Flowers and Butterfliesis a clear example of a flower and insect painting. The painting depicts twenty-five butterflies surrounding three fragrant sprigs of flowers and a sweet-smelling citrus fruit called a Buddha’s hand. Ma captured a variety of butterflies and depicted them with with a variety of colors. She emphasized six big butterflies in black and grey, painting these in a gradation style balancing the color palette. The rest of her small butterflies illustrate an outstanding level of detail and technical ability. She depicted the wings of smaller butterflies with dots, in contrast to big butterflies, in order to give a life-like quality. The description of lower wings with dots suggests they are actively flying around the big butterflies. By circulating flowers and fruit, we can imagine that the butterflies flock to their seductive fragrance, adding a dimension of scent to work. This narrative dimension adds to the stereotypical comparison of women and flowers. Here, women--seen through the image of the flower-- attract the butterflies that surround them by their appealing aroma.
Ma Quan produced these paintings in part due to her family lineage, following the techniques of her male relatives Yun Shouping and Ma Yuanyun. Her father, Ma Yuanyun, studied flowers and butterflies with Yun Shouping, the two referring to these studies as “sketching from life.” Ma took up her father’s studies and worked to depict her subject matter with light colors and delicate, yet stable, line work. Ma observed her subjects closely, frequently referencing old masters--specifically those from her own family. While many female artists painted during this period, few took up painting as a professional career and instead practiced the art as a hobby within the home. Ma Quan was one of a few privileged women who engaged with painting professionally. However, her work was overshadowed by her male relatives.
With is in mind, a comparison can be made between Ma Quan’s Flowers and Butterfliesand the historical status of the female artist, both living inevitably short lives. Ma Quan earned an opportunity to be an artist due to her elite family, but had to follow the old masters’ artistic techniques and was dependent on male relatives to build her career. Despite her reputation, she only appears in Zhang Geng’s text as the granddaughter of Ma Mei and the daughter of Ma Yuanyun. The artists captured ephemeral beauty of butterflies regardless of their short lives. Female artists may have made beautiful work during their lifetimes, , but their work was rarely given the same place in art history as their male peers. Ma Quan preserved the eternal life of butterflies in these paintings. Ironically, her own life as an artist was almost as short and the butterflies’ lives.
Chelsea Jungeon Koo and Daniel Walker
Weidner, Marsha, et. al. Views from Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists, 1300-1912. Indianapolis Museum of Art and Rizzoli, New York, 1988.