Her Distinguished Brushwork presents various issues faced by women painters during the seventeenth century. Although they were deemed often less skillful than their male contemporaries and their works of art were frequently considered to be "naive" and rustic, examining their paintings and writings can offer a new understanding of the social history of women living in the seventeenth century.
The life of Li Yin before her marriage remains obscure. We know about her life mainly from a preface to a collection of her poetry written by her husband, Ge Zhengqi (unknown-1645), and a biography written by a famous scholar, Huang Zongxi (1610-1695). According to her husband, Li Yin came from a poor family but she was learned and skillful in poetry. Ge Zhengqi married Li Yin as a concubine because he was impressed with one sentence of her plum-blossom poem: "To save one branch (I wish) to blossom in late spring."
Li Yin's social status – whether she was a courtesan or a concubine, an amateur or professional painter – contributed to her artistic persona and brought social and economic benefits to her and her family.
The exhibition is divided into four parts. Part 1 of this exhibition (Exhibits 1 to 5) presents collaborations between husbands and wives. Part 2 (Exhibits 6 to 10) features paintings believed to have been executed by Li Yin during the time she was a professional painter. After the death of her husband, the family's financial situation declined and Li Yin sold her paintings to support herself. These paintings are usually in the format of hanging scrolls, with flowers and birds as their subjects. Part 3 of the exhibition (Exhibits 11 to 13) compares flowers-and-birds paintings by Li Yin with two famous seventeenth-century painters: Sun Kehong (1533-1611) and Zhou Zhimian (active in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries). The last part of this exhibition (Exhibits 14 to 17) displays forgeries imitating paintings by women.
Using the example of Li Yin throughout the exhibition, its four parts explore: how women painters established their artistic personae, and how their works benefited their families.