In China, the mudan (peony) has long been honored as the king of flowers for its beauty and tenacity. It has been associated with royalty since the earliest times, and historical texts from the Tang dynasty (618–907) indicate that tree peonies were grown at the imperial court for the aesthetic pleasure of their distinctive blossoms. These flowers, with their rich and vibrant colors, frequently appeared as a central theme in poetry and drama, and the distinctive blossoms remain among the most popular botanical motifs in Chinese art.
Since the tenth century, the city of Luoyang has been the epicenter of peony cultivation in China. One popular anecdote, perhaps legend, posits this geographic designation as a direct offshoot of the actions of the notorious Empress Wu (reigned 684–704). In the middle of winter, the Tang ruler demanded that one hundred flowers bloom for her pleasure. Only the steadfast peony refused to acquiesce to this selfish command. Furious, the empress ordered all the tree peonies in the capital city of Xi’an to be destroyed and all of the others in her domain banished to the far-eastern city of Luoyang.
In this painting, Wang Wu, a noted artist in the court style of the early Qing dynasty (1644–1911), pays homage to the independent spirit of the tree peony through an exquisite rendering of its lush flowers and curling branches amid a landscape of deep, craggy rocks. Wu’s botanical paintings on silk—often mounted on paper, as here—were especially famous for their rich combination of soft pastel watercolors and muted tones of monochrome ink. Following the literati fashion, he has added a short inscription on the right mentioning the flower’s tenacity and affiliation with Luoyang. This spirited work was originally designed as a large hanging scroll to be displayed vertically on the interior walls of a large public space, perhaps the imperial palace itself.