In the history of ancient Chinese painting, the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912) witnessed glorious development of various painting styles and schools,most of which were established during the earlier Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368). It is no exaggeration to say that great masters emerged one after another from the prolific painting schools during the Ming and Qing period. In terms of landscape painting, for instance, various painting schools, such as the Zhe School, Wumen School, Songjiang School, Wulin School, Loudong School, Yushan School, Yangzhou School, Jingjiang School, had reached the pinnacle of the development based on the foundation laid in the Song and Yuan dynasties. As for the painting of birds and flowers, insurmountable achievements were made during this prolific period in no matter the court painting school that valued thedepiction riches and honors in the early Ming Dynasty, or the school of rustic charm represented by painters such as Xu Wei (1521-1593) and Zhu Da (1626-ca. 1705).
Interest of the literati remained to be the most powerful impetus for the development of painting in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Meanwhile, the civil culture, which emerged with the prosperity of commerce and cities, also became a driving force for painting. Such a force was still hidden or ambiguous in the Ming Dynasty. But when it came to the mid-Qing Dynasty, the sensational Yangzhou School testified to the impact of civil aesthetics on artistic landscape and the development of art history.
Another force to be reckoned with in the development of painting is the expansion of global trade since the 16th century. Although both the Ming and Qing dynasties implemented the Closed Door Policy, China wasn’t spared in the overwhelming tide under the forceful push of western powers. Western visual culture, which arrived in China together with missionaries and mercenaries, has penetrated into the time-honored and change-resistant artistic system of China, exerting influence on the existing visual habits and conception of the Chinese people. Even if we are not sure whether the exotic trend that appeared in the late Ming Dynasty was the response of Chinese painting to western impact, the emergence of a large number of western-style images is a clear testimony to the absorption of western art by Chinese painting.
That is an era more interesting than imagined. Let us start our time travel by the media of visual art.
Dense Green Covering the Spring Mountains
This painting of quiet and lush hills was by Dai Jin who was the leader of Zhe school in the beginning of Ming Dynasty. Dai Jin’s landscape paintings can be traced back to the academic painting tradition in Southern Song Dynasty, and this tendency is clearly reflected in this painting. The screen is divided into three levels, with white clouds as divisions, presenting a sense of space which is the difference between Chinese and western paintings.
Lofty Mount Lu by Shen Zhou
This painting is about 2 meters in height. According to the inscription, it is painted by Shen Zhou, the leader of Wumen (today’s Suzhou) school, to celebrate his teacher Chen Kuan’s 70 years old birthday. It was obviously an expression of the student’s admiration for his teacher. As for painting techniques, it mainly adopts Wang Meng’s typical texturing method（Jiesuo Cun).
The Studio of True Appreciation (Zhen Shang Zhai) by Wen Huiming
In this picture, the Zhen Shang Zhai is nestled between verdant pines and exquisite Taihu stones. We could see three rooms in the painting. The host and his guests are sitting in the middle room; they seem to admire a scroll, with a boy servant standing aside. In the right room, there are two boys sitting around a stove with boiling water; there is no one in the left room, but through half rolling curtains, we could see books and bamboo scripts on the shelves and a guqin (seven-stringed plucked instrument) lying on the table, showing that the host has elegant interests. Behind the rooms, there are many bamboos, with a landscape of lakes and mountains on the left, forming beautiful scenery and a broad vision.
Spring Morning in the Han Palace
This painting adopts a perspective slightly higher than buildings, putting the viewer’s sight up on the high and over the parapets. The garden scenery could be all included in the painting, so the viewer could have a panoramic view of the garden scenety.
We could imagine that, as the audience slowly opened scroll, and his sight moved from the right to the left, from the outside to the inside of the garden. In the Ming Dynasty when there was an absence of moving images, it was quite a real palace travel. Paintings portraying court ladies’ activities have a time-honored history in Chinese classical painting. Qiu Ying, as the master of Wu men school, fully learned from the painting style of his former generations, and meanwhile blended contemporary aesthetic elements and details.
Spring Morning in the Han Palace by Qiu Ying
Spring Morning in the Han Palace (1552) by Qiu YingChina Modern Contemporary Art Document
Spring Morning in the Han Palace (section) by Qiu Ying
Spring Morning in the Han Palace (section) by Qiu Ying
Eight Views of Autumn Moods
“Album of paintings” comes from the evolution of Chinese ancient books design, and it is a unique Chinese painting forms. As a painting sketch, it facilitates creation, easy for storage and portable, suitable for instant appreciation, thus it was quite popular among literati since Song Dynasty. This album by Dong Qichang has a total of eight pages.
This album by Dong Qichang has a total of eight pages. According to the inscription by Dong himself, we could know that this painting portrays the scenery along his way boating to Wumen and Jingkou in the autumn of 1620. But in fact, the eight-page paintings do not present a real recognition of landscape, so they should not be seen as landscape paintings but should be regarded as Dong’s emulating predecessors’ way of painting.
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 1
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 2
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 3
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 4
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 5
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 6
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 7
Eight Views of Autumn Moods - 8
Chinese landscape painting and western landscape painting are quite similar in their birth process. They both developed from the background of portraits; however, their later development is quite different. Since the day it came into being, Chinese landscape painting did not focus so much on representation of the reality, but more expressed artist's inner ideal landscape.
Landscape painting had become a carrier for ink experiment. After Dong Qichang’s summarization of painting history in late Ming Dynasty, it had become the key point for painters to learn and imitate their predecessors so as to make landscape painting transcend the real mountains and waters. His theory influenced landscape painting in the whole Qing Dynasty.
Mountains, Streams and Autumn Trees (1717) by Wang HuiChina Modern Contemporary Art Document
Mountains, Streams and Autumn Trees
This painting, by one of the "Four Talents" Wang Hui, portrayed views of autumn mountains which could be seen from the images and the inscription by his friend. But in reality we could not find any similar kind of landscape. Here the images are not important, what’s important is his use of painting techniques, which imitated literati painter Wang Meng’s techniques in the Yuan Dynasty.
Cloudy Mountains by Wang Shimin
“Step forward, you will enter the imperial palace; retreat, you will see lakes and mountains”. Chinese ancient literati were always caught in the dilemma of “being an official” or “live in solitude”. After Song and Yuan dynasties, landscape painting gradually became a carrier for literati to express their wish for seclusion, and also became a pure land for literati and officials to escape from secular annoyance. This painting carried on this tradition, and the painter Wang Shimin, one of the “four talents” of orthodox school in early Qing Dynasty, was also a member of the civil service system possible to leave this empty.
The main scene of this painting is layer upon layer of mountains, with flickering streams and waterfalls; in the lower part of the painting, lush trees cover a cottage and a man of letters sits inside in meditation. There is no path leading to the outside of mountains in the picture, showing that man of letters hopes that he is completely isolated and uninterrupted. The man in the painting can be understood as official Wang Shimin’s portrayal of his own wish to live in solitude.
During Wanli period (1573-1620) of Ming Dynasty, some Jesus missionaries came to China to carry out missionary activities. Meanwhile western technology, knowledge and ideas also came to China together with them, and gradually penetrated into each field of Chinese society in a small scale. The field of visual art was no exception. The American Chinese art historian James Cahill believed that the trend of preferring “odd” and “strange” paintings could be considered as the results of western visual art impact.
Wu Li, who lived during years between Ming and Qing dynasties believed in Catholic and followed missionaries to Macao church to learn Latin. He even gave himself a Latin name Simon Xavierius a Cunha. Part of his landscape paintings obviously adopted perspective of western painting.
Spring Comes to the Lake (1676) by Wu LiChina Modern Contemporary Art Document
Spring Comes to the Lake by Wu Li
This painting depicts landscape of waters in region south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River: the sloping bank extends to the rear part of the picture, creating a sense of perspective and sense of space; trees also present variation from large in the near to small in the distant. It can be regarded as an early manifestation of "learning from the West" in painting arts.
Gong Xian (1618-1689)
A representative figure of the “Jin Ling (today’s Nanjing City) Painting School,” excelled in landscape painting. Recognized as “White Gong (the painter’s surname)” and “Black Gong,” his painting styles had exerted wide influence on his peers.
The artist applied the technique of “accumulating ink,” namely, using multiple layers of ink to illustrate rocks and slopes, giving these objects a sense of heaviness and spaciousness. The contrast between light and shadow in this work reflects the influence of western painting techniques which were introduced to China at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Yellow Leaves and Trees in Late Autumn by Gong Xian
Spring Water Flows out of Gorge by Zhang Yin
“Spring Water Flows out of Gorge” was created by Zhang Yin during his middle-aged years. Zhang was the founder of “Beijing water painting school”. Zhang Yin was dissatisfied with the conservative painting trend after the mid Qing Dynasty. He followed the Song and Yuan painting traditions and combined with creation of actual Jiangnan landscapes, with strong realistic feature and distinctive local characteristics.
The river pours down from the upper left side, presenting a “>” shape all through the paining, which is strong and forcible. The whole mountain shape and structure follows “great mountains and grand water” painting style of Song Dynasty, but the landscape scenery has Zhenjiang local characteristics, which embodies a new and fresh painting style in “Beijing water painting school” which was represented by Zhang Yin, not falling vulgar but expressing really interests of landscape.
Hong Ren (1610-1664)
one of the “Four Monks in Early Qing Dynasty,” was an influential painter in South China. Hong made a great contribution to the founding of the “Anhui Painting School” in early Qing Dynasty, thus winning the recognition as one of the “Four Master Painters of Xin’an.”
Hong had drawn reference to the painting styles of Ni Zan (1301-1374), one of the “Four Master Painters of the Yuan Dynasty.” But different from the simplicity and desolatenessof Ni’s landscapes, Hong added his concern of worldly affairs by depicting the real landscape of mountains and rivers. Hong was especially good at painting Mount Huang, one of the “Four Most Famous Mountains”in China, based on his reclusive life in this mountain after the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
Pines and Rocks in Mount Huang (1664) by Hong RenChina Modern Contemporary Art Document
Pines and Rocks in Mount Huang by Hong Ren
Nowadays, some people take Bada Shanren as the originator of Chinese minimalism art, and some also compare him to Paul Cézanne, thinking that his works present extreme modernity. This is perhaps a misreading of Bada Shanren himself and his works, however, today when Chinese experimental ink painting has acheived a rapid development, when Chinese contemporary artists and art historians seek “modernity” base on Chinese paintings, Bada Shanren’s traditional works no doubt have new value for exploration.
Bada Shanren’s real name was Zhu Da, and he was a successor of Ming Dynasty imperial family. After experiencing the change of emperors in Ming and Qing dynasties, he became a monk to and began his career of painting.
Lotus and Birds by Zhu Da
“Music of Mountains and Waters” came from scholar Zuo Si’s poem "Hermit” in Jin Dynasty: not only stringed and woodwind instruments can produce music, so are mountains and waters. Stringed and woodwind instruments are synonymous with China ancient music, and this poem line means that the waters and mountains can also produce wonderful rhythm and sound. So when people wander in the scenery, they could also enjoy calm and cheer brought by music.
Similar with their understanding of Bada Shanren, scholars nowadays also find Chinese paintings’ modernity from Shi Tao’s novel composition and unique perspective in his works.
Music of Mountains and Waters (1707) by Shi TaoChina Modern Contemporary Art Document
Music of Mountains and Waters by Shi Tao