Pine Trees in Ancient Chinese Paintings

A Literatus Looking into the Distance (Southern Song period (1127-1279 AD)) by UnknownSong Art Museum

In Chinese culture, the pine tree is commonly used as a symbolism of gentlemen, representing virtues of self-discipline and fortitude. With the emergence of secluded philosophy in Han and Wei Dynasties (ca. early third century), it was a new life aesthetics for literati to live amidst pine trees, drinking, reading, sharing, or just enjoying the peace. This painting takes this kind of ideal life as its theme.

This is a typical court painting from Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1276), similar to the style of Ma Yuan, one of the best-known masters at that time. However, the creator of this painting remains anonymous. It mainly depicts an old pine tree, a noble literatus dressed in white, with a maid standing aside. The brushstrokes of pine trees and stones are tough yet elegant. And the pavilion was painted with a ruler, which was a common painting technique in Song period.

Fishing at the River (Late Yuan Dynasty) by UnknownSong Art Museum

This painting explicitly shows the taste for literati painting. We can tell from the style that it was possibly finished in the late Yuan dynasty or the early Ming dynasty (ca. late 13 century to 14 century), for the composition of a river with banks was quintessential in Yuan dynasty. Theoretically, it is called level distance (“pingyuan”).

As shown in the painting, mountains stretch out like a belt, in a smoky and drizzly atmosphere, streams flowing between and forests surrounding.

Two comely pine trees stand nearby, accompanied by locust trees and cypress, to illustrate a sense of order.

You can see a small boat at the right corner, in order to make the whole picture balanced. There is also a fisherman sitting in the boat. Although the painter only uses a few of brushstrokes, the character is fairly vivid.

Hermit in Mountain (Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD)) by Zhou ChenSong Art Museum

This fan leaf is painted with ink on gilded paper, by Zhou Chen, a professional painter in Ming Dynasty(1368-1644). His brushwork of landscape paintings are skillful and precise, with steep mountains and rough stones, while human figures in his works are eccentric and totally different from each other.

It delineates the joyful life in the mountains: miles of pine trees, vines ariot everywhere and bushes surrounding. As you can see, this work is painted in an impressional way, with great amount of details, so it is certainly worth a careful appreciation.

In the cottage under a group of tall pine trees, a literatus is appreciating the mountain view.

On the right side, a boat floats on the slow-moving river, and the men pointing toward the cottage should be visitors.

Landscape in the Style of Ancient Masters (Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD)) by Lan YingSong Art Museum

This archaistic landscape scroll is painted in the style of Dong Yuan and Ju Ran, masters in Five Dynasty (907-960 AD). The painter Lan Ying, who was active during the Ming Dynasty, specialized in flowers and birds, plums and bamboos, and is particularly known for landscape paintings.

According to the modern connoisseur Xu Bangda's postscript at the left corner, this work should be a fine piece finished during Lan's middle age.

Lan's brushstroke is vigorous and robust, but not vulgar at all. And imageries of cottage and boat appear again.

Flowering Pines (Late Ming Dynasty and Early Qing Dynasty (1597-1658)) by Xiang ShengmoSong Art Museum

The painter Xiang Shengmo was active in the late Ming and early Qing dynasty. His grandfather Xiang Yuanbian was a famous painter and collector in the late Ming dynasty, so Xiang started to learn about calligraphy and painting at an early age. He was good at both landscapes, portraits, and flowers and birds. His paintings always present a bright and clear view, filled with a sense of literati style, while his calligraphic works are decent and prudent, thus outstandingly vigorous.

Xiang was so expert in painting trees, especially pine trees, that his pine tree became an archetype in Chinese art history. Reading this scroll, you’ll find it filled with light green.

As for the blooming pine, the symbolism originated from the Taoist philosophy in Wei and Jin dynasties (ca. the 3rd to 5th century), implying longevity. Xiang uses thin brushes to delineate two pine trees in the late winter, lush and bloomy, with mountain stones around, covered by grass and lichen.

This is a particularly classic work that sings the praise of pine trees, as well as combines poetry together with painting. According to his postscripts, we can tell that Xiang once wrote three poems to express his happiness about the pine tree blooming. He also transcribed four poems that depict the color, the sound, the smell and the taste of pine flowers.

Pine Tree from Album of the Four Friends with Calligraphy and Painting (Qing Dynasty (1636-1912 AD)) by Qianlong EmperorSong Art Museum

Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), the longest-reigning emperor in the history of China, was also fascinated about collecting artworks and antiques from past dynasties, as well as painting and writing poems himself.

This painting is selected from an album with four leaves, depicting plants that Chinese literati loved most -- pine trees, bamboos, plums and orchids. The album is considered to be finished by the Emperor in the 22nd year of his reign.

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