Personal ethics and aesthetics

Seals - identity and expression

The placement of seals follows various conventions. The painter typically places one or more seals at the edges of, or inside, the image. He may also add an inscription and place a seal at its end. Such artists' seals are intrinsic to painting and calligraphy in several ways.

To begin with they are part of the work visually, creating an accent of a particular scale and density at a specific point. While they may be said to 'hover' slightly outside the representational or calligraphic composition, they are nonetheless also part of its 'flow', islands carefully situated in the stream of perception. In addition, they are visually considered in respect to style. An artist may have dozens of seals of varied sizes and aesthetic qualities. Selecting from this pool is part of the work of composition and expression.

Seals are also linguistic and cultural emblems. An artist may use them to suggest a variety of personal interests and orientations, often of a philosophical or social character.

In this work of WANG Yuanqi (王原祈 1642-1715), the artist has moulded his inscription to the shape of the underlying image. In the text Wang describes the circumstances of making the painting. It was, he says, produced for a Mr Yung from Wang's hometown who had come to visit Beijing where Wang served as curator of the imperial collection. After a month of drizzly rain, Yung was eager to return home and asked Wang for a painting. Wang declares that he reluctantly agreed, offering conventional apologies as to the quality of his work and the embarrassment he felt in rushing to complete it.

The seals serve as head and tail to the inscription. Beginning on the right, an oval seal bears the characters 蒼潤 (verdant, moist) poetically – and perhaps ironically – referring to the recent weather. At the end, the upper seal contains Wang's personal name 'yuan qi' (原祈), a conventional mark of authenticity. Below it, a second seal carries the text 'mao jing' 茂京 'luxuriant Beijing', a glancing reference to Wang's prestigious employment in the palace. The two terminal seals are balanced visually, one with white text out of red, the other reversing this. Aligned with the vertical axis of the painting, the application of all three seals is done with decorum and sober dignity.

 WANG Yuanqi 王原祁 (1642-1715)
Secluded Huts Among Streams and Mountains (dated 1715)
Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper
51.5 x 33.3 cm
Private collection