The 6-meter handscroll “Nymph of the Luohe River” is considered the first Chinese painting adapted from a literary work. Painted by Gu Kaizhi (AD 348-409) and presented in the manner of a comic book, it tells the bittersweet love story of a man and a deity.
The hero is Cao Zhi (AD 192-232), a son of Cao Cao (AD 155-220) and a prince of the state of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) of China. He was both a warlord and poet, famous for his Jian’an style — solemn yet heart-stirring. One of his epic works is “luoshen fu.” Fu is a form of Chinese rhymed prose. “Luoshen” is the Goddess of the Luohe River. The long text depicts Cao’s encounter with the nymph.
Gu was moved by Cao’s poetic skills and decided to portray the images on a silk handscroll.
Born in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, the celebrated painter also drew “The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.”
The painting can be generally divided into three sections. The first part shows Cao’s arrival at the shore of Luohe River along with a group of attendants. He is on the way from Luoyang to Juancheng, which is his fief. Suddenly, he has an extraordinary vision of a beauty who displays her mythical powers.
With her ribbons and robe blowing in the wind, the nymph appears to be floating in the air. The dragons and wild geese flying between Cao and the deity add to the mystery.
Holding a fan or a lotus flower, and standing on the river surface or flying in the sky, the figure of the nymph is shown in different scenes on the handscroll.
In the second section, Cao seats himself on a small wooden platform placed under several willows.
Five servants stand behind Cao and two of them are fanning their master. Cao is fascinated by the charm of the nymph who is leaving.
Taking a carriage driven by six dragons, the river goddess moves farther and farther away.
Fishes and another mythical creature accompany the nymph who is helplessly looking back at Cao.
The legendary creature with a pair of deer’s antlers, a horse’s face, a snake’s neck and an antelope’s body was created by the painter.
The third section of the painting portrays Cao’s search for his dream lover. He travels by a double-decked boat and spends a sleepless night on the shore. However, Cao doesn’t find any trace of the nymph. Having no choice, he reluctantly returns.
The cheerful mood of their first meeting and the sad separation in the end are all vividly captured by Gu.
He had translated Cao’s words into images.
Gu had a number of unusual work habits. He would paint in a garret. And when seized by inspiration, he would ask his family to remove the stairs so he could not leave his work at whim.
His other habit was drawing the eyes as the last step. He painted the eyes of Cao’s attendants first. The expression through their eyes is quite lifeless compared with that in Cao’s eyes and the nymph’s.
Attentive, excited, enchanting, grieved, helpless, reluctant, anxious and disappointed, all the emotions unfold through their windows to the soul.
It is believed that the prototype of the heroine is Consort Mi, first wife of Cao Pi (AD 187-226) who was the first ruler of the state of Cao Wei. Cao Zhi and Cao Pi were brothers.
Many popular accounts alleged that Cao Zhi and Consort Mi fell in love when they were young. Unfortunately, Consort Mi was betrothed to Cao Pi. She was forced by her husband to take her own life in AD 221 because she complained about his lack of favor. Cao Zhi composed the poem one year after Mi’s death.
The original painting is lost. Four copies dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) remain.
Two of the copies are held in the Palace Museum in Beijing, and another two are at the Liaoning Provincial Museum and the Freer Gallery in Washington DC.