after Su Hanchen (1094-1172) The Knickknack Peddler
15th century Ink and color on silk, laid onto board and framed, with an inscription reading chen Su Hanchen. 63 3/4 x 33 3/4in (161.9 x 85.72cm)
One of the most charming themes within the genre of Chinese figure painting is that of 'the knickknack peddler', an itinerant merchant surrounded by animated children that flank his cart, laden with toys, sweet treats, and household wares. Believed to have originated with the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1269) court painter Su Hanchen and taken up by Li Song (active 1190-1265), and Wang Zhenpeng (active early 14th c.), these compositions were further embraced by artists working under imperial patronage in the dynasties that followed the fall of the Song.
Although this painting bears an inscription reading "Su Hanchen" written in the root of the overhanging pine, it is more likely to have been produced under the aegis of the Ming imperial painting academy, perhaps closely following the composition of an earlier Song dynasty work. Much of Ming court art consciously emulates artistic styles of the Northern Song dynasty, positioning Ming society and rule as a direct successor to the Northern Song, a previous era of Chinese history that was looked to as a golden age.
The merchant's cart and its contents are painstakingly detailed, and upon close inspection, one can see the speckled bamboo and elaborately wrought fittings upon which the merchant displays his wares. From the fabric canopy and bamboo poles are numerous hanging ornaments, and on one side fine porcelain and lacquer is displayed, the other an assortment of toys and sweets, the food protected from pests by a wire mesh covering. One can understand the children's excitement at the merchant's arrival, as we can all look in fascination at the array of products his cart holds.
The rich details of the merchant's cart are matched by the carefully rendered clothing and delicately drawn faces of those in attendance. The children's finely woven silk brocades and gilt earrings reveals their noble, if not imperial upbringing, and their enjoyment of the event is patent in their expressions of glee and wonderment as they discover the treasures the merchant carries with him, or play with their newly acquired novelties.
Although one would may expect to find an itinerant merchant within an urban environment, the elaborate rock and flowering plants indicate this is a garden setting. Likely within the walls of a family compound, the location of the painting is another indication of the wealth and prestigious status to which the children belong.