One of HoMA’s most iconic paintings, The Hundred Geese, is currently on display in the Maurice J. Sullivan Family Gallery through February 26, 2017. This long handscroll was the first significant Chinese painting to enter the museum’s collection, as a gift from our founder Anna Rice Cooke when we first opened in 1927. In the first part of the 20th century, it was heralded internationally as a superb example of art from the Song dynasty (960–1127), paintings of which were considered the pinnacle of Chinese aesthetics at the time. While our collection has since grown to include more than 1,000 Chinese paintings, The Hundred Geese remains one of the museum’s most remarkable, and beloved, artworks. Due to its antiquity and delicate condition, the painting is rarely displayed, and right now is an exceptional opportunity for visitors to see it in person. As you stand before the painting, marveling at its incredible technique and sensitive observation of the natural world, though, there is something of which you might not be aware: The Hundred Geese is a forgery.
“No!” you might exclaim in distress. “How could you possibly make such a statement!” After all, the artist to whom the painting is attributed, Ma Fen, lived in the early 12th century, nearly 900 years ago, and his signature is on it. There are no other paintings we can confidently attribute to him that would contradict the style of this work, so why would we think it’s a forgery?
Although we don’t know enough about Ma Fen to be confident of his style, we do know a fair amount about painting during the time that he lived. Ma lived at a time when a tradition of monumental landscape painting that defined the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) was ending. Shortly after his death, Chinese civilization experienced one of its greatest moments of crisis, when Jurchen invaders sacked the capital and kidnapped the emperor, driving the court south. For the next century, all of northern China was lost.
During this time, painters, who were mostly employed by the imperial academy, responded to the changes in both their political and their natural environments to introduce dramatic changes into their work. Unlike the north, the area around the new capital of Hangzhou had an exceptionally wet climate (Hangzhou is still best known today for its massive West Lake), and this changed artists’ perceptions of space and atmosphere. At the same time, the great confidence of Northern Song compositional structure was left behind for more intimate scenes, with a noticeable increase in small formats such as fan paintings (two of which are on display in the gallery with the handscroll, both from roughly the same period). As you look at the painting, you will immediately notice the humid atmosphere and the limited vistas, all hallmarks of the fully matured Southern Song painting style, which did not develop until well after Ma Fen’s lifetime.
On the other hand, towards the end of the 13th century (around 1279, to be precise), China experienced an even greater crisis, as the entire country was lost to the Mongols. The court was destroyed, the imperial academy lost its patronage, and as the painting style associated with the Southern Song lost its credibility, artists once again turned to completely different styles more in keeping with the times. So, based on style, we can be quite confident that The Hundred Geese was done several decades after the fall of the Northern Song in 1127 (and thus well after Ma Fen), and not much later than around 1279 (since, of course, some court artists still survived after the Mongol invasion, and it took a little while for new styles to develop).
Of course, it is hard to know with any degree of precision the historical circumstances surrounding the actual making of The Hundred Geese, which still happened around 800 years ago. However, I don’t think the painting started off as a forgery. Rather, my sense is that it was done as an honest work by an anonymous Southern Song court artist (who was remarkably skilled, despite the fact that we no longer know his name). At some point in its later history, an owner who didn’t fully understand the differences between the Northern and Southern Song periods might have thought that it was by Ma Fen (who, after all, was known for his paintings of a hundred animals), and added a signature at the end so this information would be preserved for future generations. The intent behind this might still have been honest, and it wasn’t necessarily done to give the painting a false attribution.
However, in the 17th century, when there was a burgeoning market for antique paintings, someone went a step further and intentionally added forged seals of two later collectors, one from the 14th century to confirm the painting’s age, and another who was a prominent recent collector and artist, Xiang Yuanbian (1525–1590). At this point, the painting officially became a forgery. The motivations for this were obvious; a painting by a documented artist of the remote past, recently owned by a famous collector, was worth far more than an anonymous work with a vague history.
The Hundred Geese isn’t the only forgery on display in the gallery. Close by is a handscroll of bamboo supposedly by another famous early artist, Xia Chang (1388–1470). Once again, by checking the seals against other documented examples, we can tell the painting was not done by Xia Chang. However, it was such a convincing forgery that it entered into the collection of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–1796) in the 18th century, and the emperor himself praised it with an inscribed jade clasp.
At a time when we so closely associate the importance of an artwork with the identity of the artist who made it, it might be hard at first to accept that a painting could be a forgery and still be important. As you admire these paintings, though, I would encourage you to ponder the cautionary words of Gustav Ecke, HoMA’s first Curator of Asian Art: “The prerequisite of quality, one would assume, should be authenticity. But this is not always the case in Chinese painting.”
Traditionally Attributed to Ma Fen (12th century)
The Hundred Geese
China, Southern Song (1127-1279)-Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), 13th century
Handscroll; ink on paper
Gift of Mrs. Charles M. Cooke, 1927
Traditionally Attributed to Xia Chang (1388-1470)
Pure Wind in a Mountain Valley
China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 15th-16th century
Handscroll; ink on paper