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Li Tang – Founder of Southern Song Painting style

    Li Tang (ca. 1066 – 1150 AD) worked as a court painter during both halves of the Song dynasty.

    When he fled the northern invasion, he encountered bandits and painted to survive.

    But when the empire regrouped, he would go on to become the most influential Southern Song landscape painter.

    Wind Through the Pine Valleys by Li Tang
    Wind Through the Pine Valleys (1124) by Li Tang, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 188.7 x 139.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: National Palace Museum Open Data)


    Li Tang (李唐[Lǐ Táng]), courtesy name Xi Gu, was born in Heyang Sancheng (today’s Mengzhou, Henan Province).

    Not much is known about his early life. The first mention of him in any records is in 1103, when he was commissioned to copy a Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) painting for the Song court.

    He was a member of the Academy of Painting under the Emperor Huizong (r. 1100 – 1126 AD). This was a state-run institution where professional painters, often trained from a young age, painted for the royal court.

    Huizong was particularly keen on overseeing the academy during his reign.

    This came at the expense, many have argued, of his ruling duties…

    Li’s only dated painting, Wind Through the Pine Valleys (1124 AD), was done during this time.

    (There has long been speculation and debate over which of his other surviving paintings were likely from this time, too.)

    Catastrophe: Northern Song collapse

    The northern part of the Song empire was invaded and captured by the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) in 1126 AD. 

    This is why the first half of the Song dynasty is now referred to as the Northern Song period.

    Huizong abdicated but was captured by the Jurchens, in the Song’s then-capital city, Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province). 

    Li Tang, like many others, fled the capital.

    Li and the bandit-artist

    Fleeing during an invasion was dangerous and difficult. 

    The Record of the Southern Song Academy of Painting (南宋画录) noted that Li encountered bandits in the Taihang Mountains. 

    One of the them, Xiao Zhao (active 1130 – 1162 AD), became Li’s (painting) disciple.

    The Record also notes that Li had to sell paintings done on mulberry paper (i.e., very cheap, low-quality paper).

    Arrival in the Southern Song Court

    intimate Scenery of River and Mountains (Song dynasty) by Li Tang
    Intimate Scenery of River and Mountains (Song dynasty) by Li Tang, handscroll, ink on paper, 49.7 x 186.7 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The Song government ended up in Lin’an (today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province). The now captured ex-emperor’s sixth son became the new emperor, Gaozong (1127 – 1129 AD).

    Peace was eventually made with the Jin dynasty and life returned to a new normal. In fact, the Southern Song eventually prospered economically even more than the Northern Song had.

    Li Tang became the most prominent artist in the re-established Academy of Painting. 

    The last highly prominent Academy artist before Li was Guo Xi (ca. 1001 – 1090 AD). Like Guo, Li established himself most fully at an advanced age (well over 60).

    During and after his lifetime, Li’s style (see below) dominated the Southern Song landscape tradition.

    Soon after Li’s career, his style was developed further by other Academy painters.

    The most notable examples are Xia Gui (active ca. 1195 – 1224 AD), whose work mainly survives in small album leaves. And Ma Yuan (1160 – 1225 AD), the most well-known of the Ma family painters.

    A century later, the Academy fell into serious decline shortly before the Mongol takeover of China. Never again would it be so influential on Chinese art.

    Li’s painting

    Oxen (Song dynasty) by Li Tang
    Oxen (Song dynasty) by Li Tang, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 46.4 x 62.5 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Li was known to specialised in landscape, figure and water buffalo paintings.

    He is a part of the lineage of Fan Kuan’s (active 1023 – 1031 AD). Fan was known for his rugged, stark landscapes that contrasted sharply with those of the more serene Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD).

    Fan Kuan and Li Cheng’s contrasting styles were even labelled ‘marital’ (武) and ‘civil’ (文) by the aristocratic painter and art connoisseur Wang Shen (ca. 1038 – ca. 1103 AD).

    Li’ Cheng’s style had long dominated the Song court. It even ultimately became the official imperial style. 

    Li Tang managed to capture and develop the imposing and motionless atmosphere of Fan’s work. 

    He also develops Fan’s ‘raindrop’ (雨点) brush texturing technique into ‘large axe-cut’ (大斧劈) technique for outlines to rocks and vegetation. This involves inclining the brush to create a layered texture of ink (that up-close looks like wood split by an axe blade).