"The One in 500 Years" Zhang Daqian's abstract splashed-colour landscape of Yosemite fetches US$25.6m in Hong Kong

On 9 December, Sotheby's Hong Kong held its third dedicated single-owner collection sale of the Mei Yun Tang Collection* of paintings by one of the most prolific Chinese artists of the 20th century – Zhang Daqian. 

Assembled by the late renowned photojournalist Kao Ling-mei and his wife Madam Jan Yun-bor over the course of half a century, the collection is internationally recognized as one of the most comprehensive of all times and one that showcases the intimate friendship between the artist and the collector across the decades. 

Titled The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-chien – From Heritage to Breakthrough, the sale comprised 21 works from the 1940s to the 1960s, spanning his early traditional fine brush paintings, to the bold splashed ink and color works created of his late oeuvre, all of which have never been offered at auction before. 

Among them, 18 lots found new homes, bringing in a total of HK$295 million (US$37.9 million) with a sell-through rate of 87.5%. Leading the special sale was the HK$199-million (US$25.6-million) Autumn Mountains in Twilight – the Chinese artist's abstract, splashed-ink-and-color take on the peaks of Yosemite, among America’s most recognizable mountains.

*The first sale was held in 2011, which saw all 25 lots on offer sold, commanding a stunning HK$680.7 million; the second sale, in 2013, achieved a total of more than HK$330 million with 21 out of 25 lots sold above high estimates. 

Lot 9 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-Chien, 1899-1983) | Autumn Mountains in Twilight, Splashed colour on paper, framed
Dated 1967, with three seals of the artist
194 x 104 cm
Inscription: Old Man Yuan at Wuting Lake in the eighth lunar month of the dingwei year.

  • The Mei Yun Tang Collection

Estimate upon request
Hammer Price: HK$171,000,000

Sold: HK$199,369,000 (US$25.6 million)

A household name in China, Zhang Daqian is not only among the most popular Asian painters, but also one of the best-selling artists in the auction market, whose works command enormous prices internationally.

The Chinese master's auction record now stands at HK$370.5 million (US$47 million), set in 2022 at Sotheby's Hong Kong by his early intricately detailed scroll, Landscape after Wang Ximeng – the only piece on his top-five list that is not a colour-splashed work.

For this spectacular splashed-ink-and-colour sunset, Autumn Mountains in Twilight, the bidding was opened at HK$100 million and immediately saw a flurry of raised paddles from both live and telephone bidders.

First in HK$10 million increments and then HK$2 to 5 million, the lot achieved, after minutes of deep bidding, a hammer price of HK$171 million – a bid placed by Carrie Li (Deputy Chairman of Chinese Works of Art, Asia) for her client on the phone. After fees, the final price came to HK$199 million (US$25.6 million), making it one of the most valuable works by Zhang Daqian ever sold at auction.

Zhang Daqian (left) and Kao Ling-mei (right)

Zhang Daqian | Landscape after Wang Ximeng, Ink and colour on silk | Sold: HK$370,495,000 (US$47 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022 (Auction record for the artist)

Zhang Daqian | Peach Blossom Spring, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: HK$270,680,000 (US$34.7 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2016 (The second most expensive painting by the artist sold at auction) 

In the Western art world, Zhang has been hailed as “The Picasso of the East”. While the two twentieth-century masters' painterly styles are distinctly different, they are similar in that they are both top-selling, chameleon artists adept at a variety of styles, highly innovative yet deeply rooted in traditions, and prodigious in artistic output.

Born in 1899 to an artistic family, Zhang was a gifted artist from a young age. As many artists do, he began painting by studying and imitating the works of China's ancient masters, which gave him a firm foundation in a broad range of classical Chinese ink techniques. 

Following his first trip to Japan learning weaving and dyeing, he became a world traveller, journeying from Asia to the Americas and continental Europe. In his sojourns all over the world, he absorbed a great variety of artistic influence – most significantly the ancient grotto art in the temple caves of Dunhuang in northwest China. There he spent nearly three years making copies of the Buddhist murals, figures rendered in vibrant blue-greens and red – colours that featured prominently in his free brushwork abstract landscapes. 

In 1956 while he was in Europe, as his eyesight deteriorated, he began to experiment with splashed ink and colour on paper, a technique that minimised the need for precise details in his paintings. With rich, dark ink and mineral-based pigments, he re-interpreted the charm of traditional Chinese paintings with a hint of abstract or semi-abstract style often seen in Western modern art, which opened a new chapter in Chinese art, leading him to be called "The One in 500 years" in China.

*On a side note, a feature-length documentary film focusing on Zhang Daqian's artistic career after he moved from China in 1949, titled Of Color and Ink and directed by award-winning filmmaker Weimin Zhang, will be officially on show next year.  

The award-winning documentary Of Color and Ink shows the very rich and full second half of Zhang Daqian’s career; it will be on show next year 

Sunset over Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California 

Autumn Mountains in Twilight was created in September 1967, shortly after Zhang returned to his rural estate of Mogi das Cruzes in Brazil from an extended visit to Carmel when he attended exhibitions of his works presented by Stanford University Art Museum and The Laky Galleries. 

While in Carmel, he took time to visit with his family the Yosemite National Park, a location that held a highly personal significance for the artist. Thirty years before he set foot there, his artistic brother had once visited Yomesite during a trip to California to raise funds for war relief. Over the years, Zhang kept a photo of his brother at Yosemite displayed at his own home, until it was eventually lost in a fire. Upon seeing the magnificent cliffs and valleys of Yosemite, he was greatly awestruck and became inspired to reproduce his own visual experience in a highly abstract manner. 

Drawing inspiration from the sunset views of Half Dome or El Capitan, Autumn Mountains in Twilight is distinguished by its bold use of colours. In a landscape tradition which celebrated monochrome ink under the influence of scholar-painters, it is unusual to find the use of brilliant colours, and red is applied sparingly to suggest mountains and trees in autumn.  

But here in this painting, colours burn with intensity: a full palette of red/orange to blue/green is splashed and splattered almost over the entire painting surface, each hue flowing naturally, creating a mesmerizing interplay of light and shadow.

The intensity of the colourful configuration is especially heightened by the red mountain peak, which is achieved by translucent layers of cinnabar applied with controlled accidental effect, and red color washes at the lower right-hand corner. Not to be missed is the thin gold wash tinted with red at the top, rendering the sky shining with the last rays of the setting sun.

After its completion, the painting was generously gifted by Zhang Daqian to Madam Jan Yun-bor. As clearly demonstrated by paintings in the Mei Yun Tang Collection, they had a generally conservative taste for the traditional styles of the artist, but both Madam Jan Yun-bor and his husband Kao Ling-mei were greatly attracted to this work. 

It was first reproduced in “Daqian xiansheng hua cui” (“Masterworks by Mr. Chang Dai-chien”), a large-size portfolio of the artist’s recent works done in the years between 1964 and 1968 compiled by Kao and published by his East Society in Taipei in 1968.

Another piece in which the artist depicts a landscape ablaze with the beaming sun, Autumn Morning (1978), could be viewed as a comparable example to Autumn Mountains in Twilight (1967). The two paintings share a similar size, only that Autumn Morning is in a horizontal composition, while this present piece is vertical. That work sold for RMB 195 million (US$30.7 million) at China Guardian Beijing in 2021. 

Zhang Daqian | Autumn Morning (1978), 88 x 183 cm | Sold: RMB 195 million, China Guardian Beijing, 2021

Other lots that sold above HK$10 million:

Lot 18 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-Chien, 1899-1983) | A Quiet Repose, Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll
Dated 1961, with four seals of the artist, and two collector’s seals, including one on the titleslip
191 x 101.2 cm
Inscription: Dai-chien Jushi at a quiet repose. Painted in the eighth lunar month of the xinchou year.

  • The Mei Yun Tang Collection

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$16,000,000
Sold: HK$19,810,000

Lot 7 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-Chien, 1899-1983) | Guanyin Bodhisattva, Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll
Dated 1948, with three seals of the artist
116 x 65.5 cm
Inscription: The Buddhist incense is burning. The light is shining on the Bodhisattva. The dress is made of silk of clouds. The lotus throne is coloured with vermilion. In glorification, I produced this painting of the Guanyin Bodhisattva. By means of this good intention and offering to the divine, for tiny specks of dust to the immense ocean of three lives, fret and worries would be cleared and the degenerated helped. With unceasing incense and light, all those lost will be enlightened and brought back to the awakened path. Nineteenth day of the second lunar month of the wuzi year, disciple Chang Dai-chien Yuan from Xishu (Western Sichuan).

  • The Mei Yun Tang Collection

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,970,000

Lot 19 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-Chien, 1899-1983) | Mountain Pass in Scenic Landscape, Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll
Dated 1944, with two seals of the artist, and two collector’s seals, including one on title slip
157.6 x 75 cm
Inscription: The landscapes of Beiyuan (Dong Yuan) and Juran are overwhelming and superimposing, magnificent yet elegant, awkward yet profound, making them the masters of painting over a thousand years. Wu Zhonggui (Wu Zhen) and Wang Shuming (Wang Meng) each took one aspect of their styles and founded their own schools. This is like the Chan sects Linji and Yunmeng each walking in their own straw sandals. Summer day of the jiashen year, Yuan.

  • The Mei Yun Tang Collection

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$10,000,000
Sold: HK$12,550,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: The Mei Yun Tang Collection Of Paintings By Chang Dai-chien — From Heritage to Breakthrough
Date: 9 December 2023
Number of Lots: 21
Sold: 18
Unsold: 3
Sale Rate: 85.7%
Sale Total: HK$295,467,000 (US$37.9 million)