The Recording of the Precedents

John La Farge




Second Floor
Supreme Court Chamber

Location Details

North Wall

Date Completed

Date Placed

Description from the artist

Confucius took the Past to build on and seemed to comment rather than discover principles. He said of himself the he was “a transmitter and not a maker, believing and loving the Ancients.” “He examined and arranged old literature, monuments and records, deciding to commence with the ancient heroes, Yao and Shun, and to come down to the time of Hau. All these deserve to be handed down to other ages and to supply permanent lessons; he made in all one hundred books, consisting of canons, counsels, instructions, announcements, speeches and charges.” So says a descendant of his in the Eleventh generation in the Second Century before Christ.

Hence he has been chosen as a type of the preservation of Precedents. Of course, he is a thinker and poet and this charm of thought and of sentiment remains with his memory.

Fortunately also for the painter there are facts about him which easily lead to such a pictorial representation of him and of his scholars as I have attempted. He taught in groves and by waters and rivers, and therefore with picturesque backgrounds. Indeed, one of the elegancies of Chinese records is the connection of the thinker and the landscape.

The young Confucius and three of his disciples are here represented seated upon the river bank. Confucius ponders over his annotation to the roll of manuscript stretched upon his knee. Two of his disciples unroll the long fold of another manuscript for further comment and elucidation of the Master. The text is ancient and refers to the work of one of the early kings and heroes whom he admired and commented upon. Another younger pupil has partly unrolled a scroll, about which he intends to consult his Chief and Friend. It has inscribed upon it a few words of ancient lore which Confucius interpreted thus, “Laying on the colours follows the preparation of the plain ground;” a lesson like that of Socrates that one’s duty is first to the work and not to outside influences. Confucius is represented as young. He began teaching in his twenty-eighth year, and by his thirtieth year he had already a number of pupils and disciples about him. We have no authentic portrait of him; one of the very earliest is many centuries after him, and he is represented as an older man, as of course is the usual fate of men of celebrity who have lived long. On the left of the picture, a servant or messenger, bowing in the traditional manner, presents a collection of manuscripts, sent to the Philosopher by some great lord, perhaps for explanation or annotation.

Alongside of Confucius is the musical instrument upon which he played before talk or discussion. It is called the “kin” and has very many stories and associations connected with it. The instrument as here depicted is much later than the time of Confucius, but it is copied from the document nearest his time. The archaeology of the case is almost impossible, there being very few pictorial words of any date near to that of the subject, and therefore the costumes have necessarily taken a much more recent form. The advice of a very learned Chinese scholar, recently returned from a long visit to China where he traced the earliest remains of Chinese history, especially as connected with literature, has guided this work. Confucius taught in various places, and the picture represents a Chinese garden landscape made out according to Chinese precedent. By the little cascade hangs the willow which waves perpetually in the draft of the stream. The rocks are partly natural and partly artificial, so as to allow a series of natural steps, and each tree has been chosen and placed for some reason of contrast and also of symbolic meaning.

The scale of the garden landscape is very small, but simulates the effect of larger forms and shapes.