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Fan Kuan – Daoist Mountain Artist

    Fan Kuan once had a spiritual and artistic epiphany.

    Afterwards, he moved to the mountains, lived as a Daoist recluse, drank wine, and painted.

    His personality contrasted sharply with the other great landscape painter of his era – the aristocratic and aloof painter Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD).

    Fan and Li are often considered the greatest landscape painters in Chinese history. Yet despite studying and admiring Li, Fan’s style is uniquely his own.

    Travellers by Streams and Mountains (ca. 1000) by Fan Kuan
    Travellers by Streams and Mountains (ca. 1000) by Fan Kuan, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 206.3 x 103.3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy)


    Fan Kuan (active ca. 1023 – 1031 AD) (范宽 [Fàn Kuān]), courtesy name Zhong Li, was born in Huayuan (today’s Tongchuan, Shaanxi Province) sometime in the tenth century.

    Not a lot is known about his life, including his real name.

    He was also known as Zhong Zheng (中正 [Zhōng Zhèng]). Zhong Zheng can mean ‘middle’ and ‘upright’, and Fan Kuan ‘limit’ and ‘wide’ – two nicknames that likely reflected his personality.

    He was likely born around the year 950 AD, shortly before the unification of China under the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

    The brief biography given of him in the 1125 AD record of the royal art collection states:

    风仪峭古,进止疏野,性嗜酒,落魄不拘世故 […] 常往来于京洛。
    His manner stern and his appearance was like a dishevelled and wild ancient […] He often travelled between the capital 
    [Bianliang, today’s Kai’feng] and Luoyang.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 11

    We are also told that after having an epiphany one day, he moved to the mountains (see below…)

    This is more or less all we know about him. So, to this day he remains as mysterious as a figure in his painting, wandering through the quiet mountain forests.

    Fan’s times

    The period during or just before Fan was born is what now known as the Five Dynasties period (907 – 960 AD)

    It was a period of disorder and competition amongst states within China that occurred after the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) had collapsed.

    The early Song dynasty brought with it a stability and prosperity that is still celebrated today. However, it was during the Five Dynasties that landscape painting seems to have developed rapidly.

    Not a lot is known about this development, but figures several key figures do stand out from it.

    Other than Li Cheng, these include the Henan Province official and painter Jing Hao (ca. 855 – ca. 930) and his protégé and fellow-northern painter Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960).

    Mount Kuanglu by Jing Hao
    Mount Kuanglu by Jing Hao (ca. 900), hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk. 185.8 x 106.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    And also the ‘Jiangnan’ (southern) painter Dong Yuan (d. 962) and his protégé the Buddhist monk Juran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD), who was the only figure mentioned here who is known to have made it to the Song court in-person.

    Riverbank (10th century) attributed to 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)

    Fan’s painting and artistry

    Imitating Fan Kuan’s “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams” by Dong Qichang
    Imitating Fan Kuan’s ‘Travelers Among Mountains and Streams‘ by Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636 AD), hanging scroll, ink on paper (?) Size (?). National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The Xuanhe Catalogue mentions fifty-eight of Fan’s paintings being in the royal collection. But today, only one exists: Travellers by Streams and Mountains (at the top of this article).

    This is a relatively common situation for paintings from that era. After all, 1000 years is a long time for a painting made on silk to survive.

    The Catalogue gives us great insight into Fan’s artistry.

    [He] enjoyed painting landscapes. He started out studying Li Cheng, but then he had realisation and exclaimed: “In the past, painting methods were based on painters grasping the nature of objects. So, when I learned from these [past] painters, it was not as good as learning from objects themselves. And when I when I learn from the objects themselves, this was not as good as learning from the objects’ inner natures.”

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 11

    Soon after this, the Catalogue continues, Fan gave up his current life and headed for the forest mountains. Here, he

    observed gloomy cloud and mist, the wind and moon, shade and the aftermath of rains – difficult to depict scenes that his ink met with his spirit in his brush [to convey]。

    – Ibid.

    Fan’s painting style

    Fan’s surviving landscape painting gives off a powerful and almost overbearing impression. 

    The broad, towering mountains are almost daunting in scale and shape. They block the dominate the scene, blocking the horizon and hanging over the foreground.

    A thin waterfall splits and falls into a mist that rises from the steams that surround the base of the mountains. 

    And in the foreground – emerging from the large trees and rocks – two travellers are leading mules through a clearing.

    Detail from Travellers by Streams and Mountains by Fan Kuan
    Detail from Travellers by Streams and Mountains (ca. 1000) by Fan Kuan, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 206.3 x 103.3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy)

    The presence of the small travellers and mules, which is usually noticed after the mountains, reinforces the presence of the mountains.

    Fan Kuan’s contrast with Li Cheng

    a solitary clearing amid peaks by li cheng
    A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 111.4 x 56 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. (Purchase: Nelson Trust). (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    It gives a very different impression to that of Li Cheng’s work.

    In fact, the two artists were directly contrasted by the painter Wang Shen (ca. 1048 – ca. 1103 AD) as symbolising different aspects of the state: 

    The civil and the military

    Fan was associated with the military style of painting (heroic, direct, powerful) in contrast to Li being associated with the civil (refined, cultured, subtle).

    This is perhaps slightly ironic, as Li came from an aristocratic background. His Tang dynasty ancestors were much more martial than the Song elite. 

    However, Li himself was a cultured and refined figure, clearly attuned to civil affairs.