Skip to content

Guo Xi – The Emperor’s Favourite Painter

    During his lifetime, Guo Xi’s (ca. 1001 – ca. 1090) paintings decorated government halls and he painted for the emperor himself.

    Yet just a couple of decades later, many of his paintings had been taken down from the halls of government and placed in storage.

    One of them was being used as a cleaning rag in the palace…

    One official was told:

    The Shenzong Emperor had loved Guo Xi’s paintings and one palace hall was covered exclusively in them. However, once the Huizong Emperor took over, he replaced them with ancient paintings. This was not the only painting [by Guo Xi] put away in storage.

    – From Record of Paintings by Deng Chun, scroll 10
    Detail from Old Trees, Level Distance by Guo Xi
    Detail from Old Trees, Level Distance (Song dynasty) by Guo Xi, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 35.6 x 104.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Biography of Guo Xi

    Guo Xi (郭熙 [Guō Xī), courtesy name Chun Fu, was born in Wen County, Heyang (a city of the same name in today’s Henan Province).

    He lived entirely in the first part of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), which would later become known as the Northern Song dynasty period (960 – 1127 AD).

    Guo’s family was linked to other elite families, including the scholar-official Fan Zuyuan (1041 – 1098 AD). 

    But not much else is much is known about his life until he became a court painter in the capital, Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province), in the spring of 1068.

    He had first arrived in the court with the senior councillor Fu Bi (1004 – 1083 AD).

    Initially, his title was art scholar (艺学) and he worked in the Academy of Painting. Within about a decade, he was promoted to artist-in-attendance (待诏).

    One of his earliest tasks appears to have been painting the Temple of Spectacular Numina (景灵宫) just outside the imperial city. 

    (The imperial city was a walled off area within the capital where government officials worked). 

    In the same decade, he made a name for himself with many celebrated paintings. One of these was Early Spring (1072).

    Early Spring by Guo Xi
    Early Spring (1072) by Guo Xi, hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk, 158.3 x 108.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    After a brief break from his duties in the late 1070s, spent visiting his elderly parents, Guo returned to court.

    Guo Xi’s attachment to the Academy of Calligraphy

    Even though he was a painter, Guo Xi was attached to the Academy of Calligraphy.

    Calligraphy was seen as more prestigious than painting during the Song dynasty.

    Therefore, being a member of the Academy of Calligraphy granted more status and privileges than being a member of the Academy of Painting.

    In Guo Xi’s case, this association was likely made to reflect his importance to the emperor.

    The emperor endorses the New Policies

    Portrait of Shenzong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Shenzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 176.4 x 144.4 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    In 1069, the year after Guo had entered the court, important political reforms were approved by the emperor Shenzong (r. 1067 – 1085 AD).

    These reforms, called New Policies (新法), were devised and implemented by the official Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086 AD)

    They covered almost every aspect of Song society, from politics to economics, education, and more. 

    And they would dominate politics (and many ordinary people’s lives) over the following decades.

    This restructuring extended to the imperial city’s buildings, too. Some old buildings were changed or destroyed altogether. Others were built and decorated to Shenzong’s taste.

    Painting spirit screens for the imperial city’s halls

    Shenzong selected Guo Xi to create paintings for the interior of the imperial city’s buildings.

    These paintings were mounted on large free-standing or fixed panels called spirit screens or zhaobi (照壁).

    These varied in size, depending on the importance of the specific room they were in (the more important, the larger). Some were made up of 12 screens each over 20 feet (/6 meters) tall.

    They helped great an atmosphere of authority and culture within the most important centres of power in the empire.

    The Jade Hall (Hanlin Academy)

    The Jade Hall (a name for the Hanlin Academy) was one of the most important buildings in the imperial city (therefore empire!). 

    Here, scholar-officials decided on interpretations of the classics. This in turn influenced policy, propaganda, and one of the dynasty’s main recruitment systems: the imperial exams.

    Since the tenure of the scholarly and literary giant Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD), the emperor would also frequently visit the building at any hour to consult academicians there.

    It was previously decorated by the work of other artists. These include the first painter to directly bring the new style Five dynasties landscapes to the Song courtJuran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD).

    And Juran’s artistic mentorDong Yuan (d. 962), who was only active during the Five dynasties period (907 – 979 AD).

    However, during the Yuanfeng era (1078 – 85) of Shenzong’s rule, this building – like many others in the imperial city – was restructured and its existing art was lost in the process.

    One official later recounted seeing the work Guo Xi’s work in several places, including the refurbished Jade Hall:

    two departments, the Secretariat and Chancellery, including their rear sections, the Bureau of Military Affairs, and the Academician Institute were all painted together by Guo Xi’s hand. There are many masterful sights in display, but View at Dawn on Spring River is the most outstanding work.

    – Ye Mengde, Shilin Yanyu (1137)

    Su Shi (1137 – 1101 AD), the most prominent literary celebrity of the era, wrote a poem about seeing the painting.

    In Jade Hall is shaded from spring even on a day of leisure; 
    Guo Xi’s painting of spring mountains is there.

    – From ‘Guo Xi’s Autumn Mountains, Level Distance’ by Su Shi

    And Su’s brother, Su Che (1039 – 1112 AD) also wrote about them in a poem:

    崩崖断壑人不到,枯松野葛相欹倾 […]
    [On the] twelve panel screens in the Fengge and Luantai [buildings], Guo Xi’s name is written.
    Steep cliffs and jagged ravines unreachable to men; withered pines and wild vines leaning crooked […]
    All [Officials] talk of there being no ancient men nowadays – they don’t know of the artist-in attendance at the North Gate [Guo Xi], whose white hair hangs down to his hat strings.

    – Su Che, ‘Guo Xi’s Handscroll’

    Guo Si (d. 1123)

    Guo Xi’s son, Guo Si (d. 1123) passed the imperial exams in 1082. Prior to this, he is mentioned as having helped his father on imperial painting commissions.

    Guo Si passing the exams was an important event to their family. It raised their status further. 

    To celebrate it, Guo Xi painted a four-wall work for the Confucian Xuansheng Hall in his hometown of Wenxian. He inscribed it with the following quote: 

    Life’s ambitions are all attained by the brush.

    Guo Xi

    Guo Si would go on to achieve the prestigious rank of Grand Master for Court Attendance. And in 1117, he had a person audience with the emperor Huizong to present him with his father’s writings.

    Guo Xi’s art

    In a note by his son (see below, ‘The Great Message on Forests and Streams‘) Guo Si, we learn that Guo Xi had a very particular process for painting.

    He would clean his studio, ritually wash himself, light incense and then wait ‘as if he were expecting the visit of an important guest.’

    Guo is known primarily for landscape painting. This was the most important genre of painting throughout the Northern Song period.

    Heir to 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)

    Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD) was the most influential landscape painter in Chinese history.

    He lived during the Five dynasties period (907 – 960 AD) that preceded the Song dynasty. During this period, landscape painting developed at a speed and level never seen before.

    Many brilliant landscapists appeared, but Li was – and still is – generally considered the greatest of them all. His paintings were widely praised for their skill and style. And his social class helped add a respectable air to his reputation.

    An image of an educated gentlemen who painted for leisure (as opposed to a commercial craftsman) was built up around him.

    Guo Xi’s style, like many other painters of the Northern Song (and beyond) showed a clear influence from Li’s.

    The Song state effectively co-opted this style as an official style, to be associated with a linage stemming from Li. 

    Think of it as an imperial branding, if you will.

    Political symbolism

    Art theorists could further embellish this official style with theory around the harmony and authority it represented.

    For example, large, awesome mountains that dominated these landscapes could be interpreted as symbols of the emperor.

    And the peaceful atmosphere of the scenery, where rivers flowed people wandered, could represent the peace and prosperity of the empire.

    Why was Huizong disinterested in Guo Xi’s paintings?

    Portrait of the emperor huizong seated
    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 188.2 x 106.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    When Shenzong died in 1085 (aged 36), the New Policies he had promoted were halted. Guo Xi died five years later. 

    However, a decade after this, Shenzong’s grandson ascended to the throneHuizong (r. 1100 – 1126 AD)

    Under Huizong, and his notorious prime ministerCai Jing (1047 – 1126 AD), the New Policies were revived once again.

    Opponents of the New Policies were once again targeted. The names of anti-reformists, even deceased ones, were listed on pillars across the country.

    Guo’s friend and admirer, Su She, was the most reviled anti-reformist. He had died one year into Huizong’s reign, but now his work was banned and his associates punished.

    Other anti-reformist names associated with Guo were also listed. These included the man who first introduced him to the court, Fu Bi, his patron Wen Yanbo (1006 – 1097 AD), and his friend, the famous literary official and calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD), and more. 

    Guo had not been an anti-reformist. However, his close association with the anti-reformists caused Huizong to essentially shun his art. 

    After all, many of his paintings featured colophons (written statements mounted on the same work) by anti-reformists.

    Was there irony in Huizoing’s neglect of Guo Xi?

    It could perhaps be argued that there was a certain irony in Huizong’s neglect of Guo Xi.

    This is because Huizong’s uncle Wang Shen (ca. 1048 – ca. 1103 AD) had tutored Huiziong in painting, calligraphy and art collecting.

    Wang had grown up in the palace grounds – so he had, in turn, learned directly from Guo Xi.

    However, even if it was universally accepted that this was ironic, it would still be relatively low down on the lists of ironies that eventually befell Huizong’s…

    Detail from Misty River, Layered Peaks (Song dynasty) by Wang Shen
    Detail from Misty River, Layered Peaks (Song dynasty) by Wang Shen, handscroll, ink and colour on silk. The Shanghai Museum. (Image credit: Alamy)

    The Xuanhe Catalogue’s entry on Guo Xi

    Despite Huizong’s neglect of Guo Xi’s work, the Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting (1125) that he commissioned still spoke favourably of Guo.

    The Catalogue is a list of the palace’s art collection, complete with biographical and critical comments on the artists featured.

    Early on, his skill was brilliantly skilled, over time he became increasingly profound. He had picked up some of Li Cheng’s techniques, but as he developed subtleties, his own originality emerged […] Critics have said that Guo Xi is unique for his era in that he had robust and strong brushwork as an old man, as if its appearance grew this way over the years.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, scroll 11

    The Catalogue lists 30 artworks by Guo in the royal collection. This is, admittedly, a relatively low number considering his popularity and status several decades before.

    The Great Message on Forests and Streams 

    The Great Message on Forests and Streams (1110 AD) is a collection of Guo Xi’s remarks on painting compiled and published by his son Guo Si.

    It includes several chapters, including ‘On Painting Landscapes’ (山水训), and ‘Ideas on Painting’ (画意).

    In the former, Guo Xi’s views on landscapes are given at length.

    There are different types of landscape paintings – some are spread out, large compositions, where nothing is left out. Others are condensed into small views which are not, however, negligible.
       There are also different ways of looking at landscapes. If one looks at them with the heart of the woods and the streams, their value becomes great. But if one looks at them with proud and haughty eyes, their value becomes low.

    – Guo Xi, The Great Message on Forests and Streams