Yan Liben (Yen Li-pen 閻立本) (c. 600 - November 14, 673) formally Baron Wenzhen of Boling (博陵文貞男), was a government official and one of the most famous of Chinese figure painters of the early Tang Dynasty. His father and brother also served in the imperial court as architects, engineers, and designers, but Yan Liben was best known as a painter. His notable works include the Thirteen Emperors Scroll and Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts. He also painted the Portraits at Lingyan Pavilion, under Emperor Taizong of Tang, commissioned in 643 to commemorate 24 of the greatest contributors to Emperor Taizong's reign, as well as 18 portraits commemorating the great scholars who served Emperor Taizong when he was the Prince of Qin. Yan's paintings included painted portraits of various Chinese emperors from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) up until the Sui Dynasty (581-618) period.
In addition to being an artist, Yan was a gifted scholar and administrator. From the years 669 to 673, Yan Liben also served as a chancellor under Emperor Taizong's son Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683).
It is not known when Yan Liben was born. His ancestors were originally from Mayi (馬邑, in modern Shuozhou, Shanxi), but had relocated to the Guanzhong region (that is, the region around Chang'an) several generations prior to Yan Liben. Yan Liben's father Yan Pi (閻毘) was the deputy director of palace affairs during Sui Dynasty. He served Northern Zhou and Sui rulers with his expertise in architecture, engineering, and the visual arts, designing weapons, organizing imperial processions, and supervising the construction of a section of the Great Wall. Both Yan Liben and his older brother Yan Lide (閻立德, died 656) served in Tazong’s court, and were known for their abilities in architectural matters and their service to the imperial government in that area. They designed Tang imperial mausoleums, and were probably responsible for the six famous stone horses in front of Taizong's tomb at Zhaoling, which have survived as the best examples of early Tang relief carving. Although Yan Lide made some court portraits, his work as an engineer and architect, designing ceremonial costumes, constructing palace buildings, and building bridges and ships for military purposes, won him the title of Grand Duke.
Yan Liben worked his way up to one of the highest positions in the government, the Prime Minister of the Right. He was also the main court painter for three reigns, starting his career in Taizong's imperial court (627-649).
During Emperor Taizong's Reign
Yan Liben was a qualified scholar and intellectual, but he was mainly known for his ability as a painter. On one occasion, when Emperor Taizong was rowing a boat with his attendant scholars at the imperial pond, there were birds flying by. Emperor Taizong had the scholars write poems to praise the scene and then summoned Yan to paint a portrait of the scene. Yan was at the time already a mid-level official in the administration, but when he summoned Yan, the imperial attendants called out, "Summon the imperial painter, Yan Liben!" When Yan heard the order, he became ashamed of being known only as a painter, and he commented to his son, "I had studied hard when I was young, and it was fortunate of me to have avoided being turned away from official service and to be known for my abilities. However, now I am only known for my painting skills, and I end up serving like a servant. This is shameful. Do not learn this skill."
Just before ascending the throne in 626, the future Emperor Taizong, the second emperor of Tang Dynasty, commissioned Yan to portray eighteen eminent scholars who served under him when he was the Prince of Qin. The work, a mural, was widely publicized, and the inscription accompanying the portraits, written by one of the scholars, noted the Crown Prince's intention of attracting public support through this art project. Twenty-two years later, Yan Liben received an imperial commission to paint a second series of portraits known as The Twenty-Four Meritorious Officials in the Lingyan Palace (Lingyan Ge ershisi gongchen) to commemorate the twenty-four great contributors to his reign at Lingyan Pavilion. Taizong himself wrote the tribute, asserting the significance of this mural in commemorating the founding of the Tang Empire. Both the portraits of the eighteen scholars and these portraits of officials have long since vanished; they are his most famous works. Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, also known as Bu nian tu, is one of Liben's most famous paintings, depicting the meeting of Emperor Taizong and Ludongzan, an envoy who was sent by the first king of Tibet in 641, to accompany Princess Wencheng from China back to Tibet to be his queen.
During Emperor Gaozong's reign
During the Xianqing era (656-661) of the reign of Emperor Taizong's son Emperor Gaozong, Yan Liben served as the imperial architect and later succeeded his brother, Yan Lide, as the minister of public works. Around the new year in 669, he became acting You Xiang (右相), the head of the Examination Bureau of Government (西臺, Xi Tai) and a post considered suitable for a chancellor, and Emperor Gaozong created him the Baron of Boling. As Yan's fellow chancellor Jiang Ke (the acting head of the legislative bureau was promoted to the chancellor post at the same time because of his achievements on the battlefield), a semi-derogatory couplet was written around the time stating, "The Zuo Xiang (Minister of the Left) proclaims authority in the desert; the You Xiang (Minister on the Right) attains fame through cinnabar and blue." In 670, Yan became officially the head of the examination bureau, now with the title changed to Zhongshu Ling (中書令). He died in 673.
Yan Liben was one of the most famous of Chinese figure painters in the early years of the T'ang dynasty (618–907 C.E.). His notable works include the Thirteen Emperors Scroll and Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts. He also painted the Portraits at Lingyan Pavilion, under Emperor Taizong of Tang, commissioned in 643 to commemorate twenty-four of the greatest contributors to Emperor Taizong's reign, as well as portraits commemorating the eighteen great scholars who served Emperor Taizong when he was the Prince of Qin. Yan's paintings included painted portraits of various Chinese emperors from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) up until the Sui Dynasty (581-618) period.
His portraits were in the presumed Han style, which became the standard style of official court portraiture and the epitome of the Confucian ideal. He often employed ink and color on silk, but most of his work has been lost. He is reported to have painted emperors, great scholars, strange-looking foreigners, animals, birds, and even popular Buddhist and Taoist subjects in the same style. Among the extant works attributed to him, the most important is a hand scroll of Portraits of the Emperors, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, depicting a series of emperors selected from the preceding eight hundred years of history. Only the last seven of the portraits are original; the first six were copies of earlier works. Yen Liben has imbued them with subtly defined characteristics by means of a tightly-controlled line and limited use of color. Both Portraits of the Emperors and Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, depict subordinate servants smaller and the main figure larger than normal, a characteristic of the seventh century painters.
- Barnhart, Richard M. 1997. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300070136
- Fung, Mumn-nga, Lily. 1968. A Study of Yen Li-pen's Painting Yan Liben hua ji kao. Thesis (M.A.)—University of Hong Kong, 1968.
- Yan, Liben. 1959. Tang Yan Liben bu nian tu. Beijing: Wen wu chu ban she.
- Yan, Liben. 1900s. Scholars of the Northern Tsi Dynasty Revising Books: Tang dynasty, A.D. 618-906.
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