Claude Monet and Zhao Shao-Ang:
a comparative essay by Vanessa Lam.

Vanessa Lam 01

Claude Monet is the founder of French impressionism painting while Zhao Shao’ang is one of the four masters of the Lingnan school of painting which aimed at merging the strengths of Chinese and Western paintings. Their paintings are similar in certain ways, yet reveal the fundamental differences between Western and Chinese paintings. Hence, I have chosen Monet’s “Water lilies” and Zhao’s “Lotus” for comparison.

In terms of theme, Monet’s “Water lilies” is to some extent similar to Zhao’s “Lotus”, where painters’ emotions are incorporated into the painting. What Monet and Zhao tried to present was not only the beauty of nature, but also their own perceptions and appreciation on living creatures. Monet once affirmed, "The subject is of secondary importance to me, what I want to reproduce is what exists between the subject and me." The water lilies presented in the painting are not the exactly the same as those we see in a pond. Instead, Monet was trying to show the simplistic beauty and the sad reality of life, both nature and humanity.

Water Lilies Claude Monet

Claude Monet

This was also the ultimate aim of impressionism. Whilst Zhao was expressing the mood and spirit of the lotus leaves and birds, he also incorporated Chinese philosophical idea – the unity of heaven, earth and human beings - into his painting. When creating “Lotus”, Zhao stayed outdoor for a long period of time and carefully observed the movement of lotus leaves and dynamics of birds in the nature. He drew the lotus and bird according to what he felt in his mind or what he saw through his eyes. In a certain extent it is quite different from the real objects.

Both Monet and Zhao emphasized that importance of the surrounding atmosphere to a landscape that its appearance changes at every moment and the surrounding atmosphere, i.e. the light and air, brings it to life. However, their expression of the subject is quite contrasting when in terms of use of ink and color. Monet’s “Water lilies” is famous for the detailed expression of light and shadow. An unseen light source came from the top and a variety of paint colors was used to catch the instantaneous moment of water lilies and the surrounding. Monet used oil color paints which include a large variety of colors. The yellow highlights the edge of lily pads whereas purplish blues draw the pond water with shades of dark green, indicating the grass underneath, in between. On the contrary, colors in “Lotus” are plainer, not as rich as in “Water lilies”. Only simple Chinese water colors, which could be absorbed by the absorbent art paper, are used.

Lotus Zhao Shao-Ang

Zhao Shao-Ang

There are also differences in background, composition and style between the two paintings. In Monet’s “Water lilies”, as a typical impressionist painting, there is not a central feature in the painting. Although painters of Lingnan school and impressionist painters share same view on nature, that there is no beginning or end, painters of Lingnan school make good use of void. In Zhao’s “Lotus”, the notion of void is vital. It is the void that allows audience to have imagination of the flowing waves and floating lotus leaves in the pond, which is beyond the painting. Unlike “Lotus”, when appreciating Monet’s “Water lilies”, audience is rather passive and views the painting from the perspective of an outsider. The biggest characteristics of Lingnan school of painting is to allow participation of audience through the use of void. In addition, the proportion of void occupied is often another challenge to the painter. Because the composition of the painting will be bad if void is in excess or in deficiency. Furthermore, calligraphy, poetry and seal are components that only appear in Chinese painting. Painters also pay particular attention on where to put them. In “Lotus”, the calligraphy and seal are carefully placed at the bottom right-hand corner. This allows, again, area for imagination, in which the waves and lotus leaves extend beyond the painting.

When talking about perspective and lighting of the paintings, they are more obvious in Monet’s “Water lilies”. In “Water lilies”, the contrast of lighting in the pond is expressed by the use of complex and rich colors. Due to such strong emphasis on lighting and shadow, “Water lilies” is more stereoscopic than “Lotus”. As Monet had painted the water lilies for multiple layers, thus the painting is perceived to be “thicker”. On the other hand, Zhao used different brush movements, instead of complex colors, to show the lighting of a landscape. In “Lotus”, the lotus leave behind is more ethereal than the one in the front as it was drawn softly by brushes, where mixture of light inks with high proportion of water was used. In addition, washes of azure are added to the background of “Lotus”. Thus further gives audience the sense of void, which enhances their imagination. Another special feature of Zhao’s painting is that big close-up is commonly used. In “Lotus”, both lotus leaves and the birds are closed to original size as those in real world. In addition to the sophisticated and energetic brush movements of the artist , the lotus leaves and birds are more realistic and vivid.

What’s more, Monet’s “Water lilies” and Zhao’s “Lotus” show difference in brush movement. Distinctive strokes can be clearly identified in “Water lilies”. Circular strokes represent the lily pads while vertical lines in the middle of the pond suggests long green grass underneath. However, in “Lotus”, lines do not appear as single strokes, brush movement is more complicated. Unlike in oil paintings that false lines can be covered up by other strokes, each stroke is irreversible and cannot be retrieved. As Shengxuan (literally means raw Xuan paper) or absorbent paper are used and the brush carries both inks and water, each stroke varies from light to dark, from solid to hollow and is immediately captured.

Take the stem of lotus as example, it gradually disappears as if water in the pond has covered it up. This, thus, give raise to the ethereal atmosphere of the painting.

In fact, it is really hard to say which one is more beautiful than the other. Both Monet and Zhao created a lot of masterpieces. They inherited the traditional painting approach and innovatively created their own style. Sadly, some conservatives criticized Monet’s paintings as “crazy, weird, cloying and disgusting” and Zhao Shao’ang’s works to be over-sumptuous and over-polished. However, I appreciate their view about nature – no beginning or end. I personally prefer the simplicity and elegance presented in Zhao’s “Lotus” more. I am completely amazed by the use of void and skills involved in single stroke in the painting as I have explained in previous paragraphs. Therefore, I think that “Lotus” is more beautiful. What about you?

About me

I am an university student currently studying in Hong Kong. When I was working on my comparative art essay, I was first introduced to Lingnan-style arts by my grand-auntie Ngan Siu-Mui, disciple of Master Zhao Shao’ang. Although I have only superficial knowledge on art, I am totally amazed by the etherealness and reserve of Chinese paintings, especially those from School of Lingnan. I believe that art is not a luxury but rather a necessity of life, as Picasso has once said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of every day".