The placid rhythms of rounded hills and rolling clouds in Wang Hui’s handscroll offer little hint of its underlying purpose: to solicit the support of one of the most influential art patrons of the day, Zhou Lianggong (1612–1672). The painting accompanied a lengthy colophon by Wang Shimin (1592–1680), a mainstay of the Orthodox school of painting and theory who advocated the emulation and authority of the past as aesthetic guides for contemporary painting. His text, equal parts introduction and promotion, praises Wang Hui’s talent in copying old master painting in the most extravagant terms.
The colophon served as a practical kind of career protection for Wang Hui, still an emerging professional artist in his mid-thirties, but already recognized as a prodigy. Earlier in the decade of the 1660s, Wang Hui had arranged a letter of introduction to Zhou Lianggong from another scholar-official patron. He was clearly interested in the broader exposure that Zhou—as a Qingdynasty official, patron, collector, and biographer of contemporary artists—could bring him.
Summer Mountains, Misty Rain was thus a pivotal work in terms of Wang Hui’s patronage situation and artistic approach. Yet the calculated ambition of his careerist agenda should not overshadow the subtlety of his pictorial achievement. At the beginning of the scroll, to the right, formations of birds in flight trace branch-like patterns in the sky above the shore of a stream and silhouettes of misty mountains. Toward the end of the scroll two woodcutters make their way along a path by the water’s edge; farther on a pair of anglers turn to converse from adjacent boats. Both episodes could convey, in the most restrained way, something of Wang Hui’s situation as an artist on the move and his desire for supportive companionship.
The vibrant textures and atmospheric softness of the more monumental central section of hills, clouds, and trees display Wang Hui’s brilliant technical range, which also allowed him to emulate diverse ancient styles with ease. These talents brought a local professional artist into the innermost circles of the scholar-official cultural elites.