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Dong Yuan – Early Landscape Master

    Dong Yuan was an important innovator in Chinese landscape painting.

    He created mysterious and inviting scenes of mountain (山) and water (水) (‘mountain-water’ [山水 – shānshuǐ] means ‘landscape’ painting in Chinese).

    Residents on the Outskirts of the Capital by Dong Yuan
    Residents on the Outskirts of the Capital (10th century) by Dong Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 156 x 160 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Life and times

    Dong Yuan (d. 962) (董源 [Dǒng Yuán], sometimes written as 董元 [same pronunciation]), courtesy name Shu Da, was from Zhongling in Hongzhou (today a part of the city of Nanchang, Jiangxi Province).

    He lived during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdom period (907 – 979 AD) (often referred to as the Five Dynasties for short).

    This period of Chinese states competing for power took place between the fall and rise of two of China’s greatest eras: 

    • The Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). The largest Chinese empire to date, not surpassed in size until the Qing (1644 – 1911). Much of China’s greatest calligraphy, literature (poetry and prose) developed during this time. Painting also advanced, though surviving paintings are relatively scarce.
    • The Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). Another outstandingly prosperous and culturally advanced age. It can be divided between the Northern Song (960 – 1126 AD) and Southern Song (1126 – 1379) periods. Calligraphy, painting, art theory, and Confucian thought all flourished during both.

    Owing to the fragmented and unstable political situation of the Five dynasties period, not much is known about Dong’s life.

    However, we do know that he was a court painter and Assistant Administrator of the North Park (a relatively minor government position) the Southern Tang state (937 – 975 AD).

    He was based in the Southern Tang capital of Jinling (today’s Nanjing). 

    He was listed as having collaborated on a painting that depicted the Southern Tang ruler Li Jing (reigned 943 – 961) celebrating snowfall with his officials on New Year’s Day 947.

    This is a sign that his reputation as an artist was already well-established at this point.

    Dong’s landscape painting

    Today, Dong Yuan is primarily known for his landscape painting

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings lists seventy-eight of Dong’s paintings in the royal collection of 1120 AD

    It also mentions his paintings of dragons, oxen, fishing boats, gods, Buddhist sages, and birds. 

    However, today, only his landscapes (or copies of his landscapes) still exist.

    The Xuanhe Catalogue also states that Dong gained fame for his colour landscapes at a time when not many painters created them well. 

    Things emanated from his heart and mind: landscapes filled with rivers and lakes, valleys full of wind and rain, gloomy and bright ridges and peaks, woods covered in thick mist and cloud, many cliffs and even more galleys, multiple riverbanks and sheer shores. These features transport the viewer directly to the scene.

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 11

    It also remarks on the awe-inspiring nature of his work:

    大抵元所画山水,下笔雄伟,有崭绝峥嵘之势,重峦绝壁,使人观而壮之 […]
    Most of Yuan’s landscapes are grand and imposing. They contain precipitous and lofty appearances. His sheer mountain ranges and cliffs convey a sense of strength to viewers […]

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 11

    Dong uses a variety of strokes, dots, and other ink techniques to create his unique mixture of clear and misty imagery. His dabbed ink over forms to soften their outlines, for example.

    The colour in his work is more subtle than the earlier, bright style of landscape painting popular in the Tang dynasty.

    Jiangnan style paintings

    Along with his follower, the painting monk Juran (ca. active 960 – 985), Dong is considered a leading figure of the ‘Jiangnan style’ of landscape painting.

    Jiangnan (江南) refers to the area immediately south of the Huai River in the southern half of eastern of China. 

    It can be defined in different ways, including as an area which covers today’s Nanjing, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and more.

    This area has many lakes, rivers, and rolling hills covered in dense and rich vegetation.

    Painted depictions of this area often contrasted greatly with contemporary northern Chinese paintings. The later often featured harsher, more mountainous scenery. 

    Examples of this northern style include the Chang’an painter Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960), and perhaps the most esteemed of all Chinese landscape paintersLi Cheng (919 – 967 AD)

    How the Jiangnan style went north

    Dong’s Jiangnan (or southern) style of painting spread to the North of China via Dong’s follower, the monk Juran.

    Once the Southern Tang state had been defeated, its remnants moved north to the newly establish Song dynasty capital, Bianjing (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province).

    One of Juran’s significant artistic commissions was to paint the Jade Hall in 992. 

    This hall was the main office of the Institute of Academicians (similar to a modern Ministry of Education and Culture).

    Here, many important political and cultural figures would have been exposed to the aesthetics and mastery of the Jiangnan style.

    Dong Yuan’s development as a painter

    Dong Yuan’s landscape painting style changed over time. 

    Early on, it was more realistic and detailed. Later on, it became broader and ethereal (see below, for his two known paintings).

    The Chinese art historian Wen C. Fong remarked on the difference between these two paintings. 

    He stated that Dong Yuan went ‘from his early unadorned naturalism (without exaggeration of sentimentality) in Riverbank to simple calligraphic formulation of hemp fibre patterns in Wintry Groves […]’. And that:

    When artists during the critical Song-Yuan transition in the late thirteenth century similarly felt they had reached a cul-de-sac in the mastery of xingsi, or form-likeness, they looked back and saw how Dong’s earlier complex, emotion-filled naturalism was superseded by his later simplified, archaizing visual schema, resurrecting an archaic conceptual visual tableau of a flat distant view.

    – Wen C. Fong, ‘Two Dong Yuans: Dual Paradigms of Naturalism and Calligraphic Expression’


    Riverbank by Dong Yuan,
    Riverbank (10th century), attributed to Dong Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 220.3 x 109.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Image source: Alamy)

    Riverbank is likely a relatively early painting by Dong Yuan. Some art historians have dated it at about the late 930s.

    It is a hanging scroll (i.e., a vertical or portrait-shaped rectangle) that primarily depicts a tranquil landscape of steep riverbanks, a river and rocks alongside a winding pathway.

    Trees are scattered across these banks, which stretch off into the distance. And there are other features placed amongst all of this, including a scholar’s study with two human figures, a multi-stream waterfall, and a wandering figure.

    Today, it looks monochrome (i.e., just ink on silk without colours), but the original did feature light colours that have darkened with age.

    Wintry Groves and Layered Banks

    Wintry Groves and Layered Banks by Dong Yuan
    Wintry Groves and Layered Banks (10th Century), attributed to Dong Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk, 181.5 x 116.5 cm. Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures, Nishinomiya, Japan. (Image source: Alamy)

    Wintry Groves and Layered Banks is believed to be from Dong Yuan’s later period.

    Today, it looks monochrome, but the original (like Riverbank) also featured light colours than have long since faded into a darker tone.

    It depicts a winter landscape, complete with snow, bare trees, and a flat, far-away horizon and other details. Houses can be seen partially hidden by trees or hills, and thin, winding path leads to a small, empty bridge before disappearing. 

    And wilting reeds are scattered throughout the picture, which adds a layer of windswept chilliness to the already stark environment.

    The scholarly recluse theme was popular during the Southern Tang court, where the rulers Li Jing and Li Yu cultivated it as an ideal.

    Dong Yuan’s influence of later Chinese painting

    Dong Yuan died in the early part of the Song dynasty, which is the dynasty when landscape painting is generally considered to have reached its peak.

    Dong Yuan’s influence can clearly be seen in the paintings produced during this era (and later). And it was often explicitly stated by painters themselves.

    The calligrapher and painter Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD), who was a highly critical and opinionated art critic, helped revive and promote Dong’s posthumous reputation.

    He admired the Dong’s ‘plain’ (or prosaic) (平淡) quality in some of Dong’s work. And he wrote in his History of Painting (ca. 1101 AD):

    in the landscape of a cloudy scene by Dong Yuan in my collection, when one unrolls the whole scroll, the structure of the mountains is hidden and revealed, the branches of trees emerge and disappear, and the mood is lofty and antique.

    – Mi Fu, History of Painting

    The leading Yuan dynasty artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD) also appreciated Dong’s painting.

    Detail from Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains
    Detail from Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1296) by Zhao Mengfu, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 28.4 x 93.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Tapei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Like other Yuan painters, he was concerned with reverting back to earlier forms of painting. He chose Dong Yuan as a model for this.