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Riverbank by Dong Yuan

    Dong Yuan’s Riverbank is one of China’s greatest landscape paintings.

    It has inspired Chinese painters and art fans for over 1,000 years.

    Remarkably, it managed to survive to this day, too.

    In this article, I will introduce this masterpiece, and outline the story of its influence and ownership over the centuries.

    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)

    The artist behind the masterpiece

    Dong Yuan (d. 962 AD) was an official and painter that lived during China’s Five Dynasties period (907 – 979 AD).

    Not a lot is known about him. This is largely due to the tumultuous nature of the Five Dynasties period, when multiple states were competing unify the empire.

    The famous Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) had collapsed a generation before, ending nearly three-hundred years of relative stability. (Though the Tang wasn’t without its own violence and disruption).

    A Jiangnan painter

    Dong worked as both a court painter and minor official for a state that called itself the Southern Tang dynasty (937 – 975 AD).

    This required Dong living and working in Jinling (today’s Nanjing, Jiangsu Province).

    The area around Jinling was often referred to as ‘Jiangnan’ (‘south of the river [Yangtze]’). It would have a notable impact on Dong’s work.

    Records show that Dong painted many paintings and types of paintings during his lifetime. But as with many artists from the period, only a few authentic ones are known to have survived.

    Founder figure in traditional Chinese landscape painting

    Dong has long been considered one of the founders of the unique landscape painting style that would go on to peak during the early Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD)

    This is a distinction he shares alongside the northern painters, including: 

    And Dong Yuan’s artistic disciple and fellow southerner Juran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD).

    What does Riverbank depict?

    At first glance, Riverbank (溪岸图 [xī àn tú] – literally ‘brook shore picture’) depicts steep banks along both sides of a gently winding river (it is in fact a walkway).

    These riverbanks both disappears off into the horizon and winds down towards a vivid foreground.

    Today, the whole painting looks monochrome (i.e., just different shades of black ink on silk), but in fact it originally had light colours which have faded with age.

    The first impression most viewers are likely to gain from it is on one of awe and grandeur…

    The scale and position of the high mountains and distant horizon create an almost otherworldly atmosphere of stillness and silence.

    However, as your eyes examine the picture closer, new details appear.

    At the very top of the image, there are hilltops enshrouded in mist and cloud. Below that, there are several flying geese (in the top right of the below picture) and two walking human travellers.

    Detail of two travellers from Riverbank
    Detail from 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)

    The winding pathway the first travellers are on leads down (past a third traveller).

    detail or single traveller in Riverbank by Dong Yuan
    Detail from 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)

    Then, it goes down into a foreground that is rich in detail, including:

    • Trees
    • Water (including a shore and a multi-section waterfall)
    • Rocks
    • Human structures (a pavilion, thatched houses, farming storage, bamboo fences, gates, pathways, and a pier)
    • Human figures (peasant workers, servants, children, a scholar and two women) 
    • A water buffalo
    Detail of pavilion and village from Riverbank
    Detail from 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)

    Does Riverbank have a narrative?

    Once seen, the details of the picture point to a clearer narrative or atmosphere.

    The dark clouds at the top of the painting suggest a coming storm. The geese are not in a v-formation, which perhaps suggests they are struggling in strong winds.

    Trees along the banks bend in the wind.

    The travellers and peasants, who are all heading in the same direction, are wearing straw hats. Perhaps, like the geese, they anticipate worse weather and are hurrying to shelter?

    In the residences behind the bamboo fence, we see three women different preparing or carrying food. They anticipate people returning.

    In the pavilion that sits on stilts in the river, the seated scholar-official looks out across the choppy waters. (We know he’s a scholar because of the type of hat he is wearing).

    Detail of scholar family in pavilion from Riverbank
    Detail from 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)

    Perhaps him and his family are more directly exposed to the elements than the paintings’ other figures?

    After all, they look out directly onto the waters, they are not protected by being more inland and behind a fence. 

    Either way, the scholar-official looks contemplative and calm.

    Do all of these details add up to a narrative of uncertainty and turbulence brewing? Can we anticipate from this a metaphor for the political situation in Five Dynasties China?

    To add weight to this, the location seems to be one of seclusion. In China, a retreat to the mountains often symbolised safety during difficult times. 

    Or perhaps this is simply a depiction of daily life at the time. Each figure is busy with their own tasks, including the scholar whose work is mental, not physical.

    Riverbank’s dimensions

    Riverbank is the tallest surviving early Chinese landscape. It measures 220.9 x 108.9 cm (87 x 42.875 inches).

    It was created by linking one piece of silk 51 cm (20.25 inches) wide with another that is 58.4 cm (23 inches). The former piece is mounted on the left, and the latter on the right.

    Riverbank’s ownership over the centuries

    Owners of important Chinese paintings often placed their seals (red-ink stamps) directly on or around the painting itself. 

    From Riverbank’s seals, we can see that it was owned by the Song dynasty prime minister Jia Sidao (1213 – 1275) and then, after Jia’s death in 1275, by the Prince Zhao Yuqin (the Zhaos were the ruling family of the Song dynasty).

    Prince Zhao did not get to enjoy owning the painting long. The Mongols toppled the Song dynasty in 1279 and a lot of the royal art collection was scattered across China. 

    The next known owner was Wang Ziqing in the 1280s. (Around this time, another Song dynasty ruling family relative, the official, calligrapher and artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322) got to see the painting).

    We know that the painter Ke Jiusi (1290 – 1343 AD) also owned the painting. There is also an official Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) half-seal on the painting. It indicates that the painting entered the royal collection between 1374 – 1384.

    Then, another great official, calligrapher, and artist Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636) owned the work.

    A seal also exists on the painting by the collector Zhang Shanzi (1882 – 1940).

    In 1938, the art collector Xu Beihong (1895 – 1953) sold the painting to Zhang Daqian (1899 – 1989) in Guilin, Guanxi Province. At the time, they thought the painting was entitled The Water Village.

    The collector C. C. Wang (1907 – 2003) acquired the painting from Zhang in the late 1960s. He had it remounted by the Japanese art preservation expert Meguru Sanji.

    In 1998, C. C. Wang gave 25 of his paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it remains to this day.

    The question of Riverbank’s authenticity

    Riverbank contains Dong Yuan’s signature. It is done in the script of the Confucian official and calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 – 984 AD). This style was particularly popular during the 10th and 11th centuries, when Dong lived.

    However, this alone is not proof of the paintings authenticity.

    In 1991, the distinguished Western Chinese art expert James Cahill (1926 – 2014) argued that Riverbank was likely a forgery by Zhang Daqian (one of the painting’s previous owners).

    Cahill listed several reasons for why he felt the painting was not done by Dong. One example was its use of particular special techniques:

    While one can find landforms that function dynamically in early Chinese landscape composition, there are none quite like those in Riverbank, which lunge diagonally and are countered by masses lunging in the opposite direction. The artist, I submit, was very familiar with this compositional method as it had been developed by Dong Qichang and his followers […]

    – ‘The Case Against Riverbank: An Indictment in Fourteen Counts’ in: Issues of Authenticity in Chinese Painting (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999) p. 33

    Dong Yuan, of course, lived about six centuries before Dong Qichang.

    However, the art historian Wen C. Fong (1930 – 2018), disagreed with Cahill. He pointed out that:

    In style and execution, Riverbank can be firmly dated to the tenth century […] James Cahill […] characterizes the brushwork of the painting as “fuzzy,” but in fact it is precisely this brushwork that defines the tenth century modelling technique.

    Along the Riverbank: Chinese Paintings from the C. C. Wang Family Collection by Maxwell K. Hearn and Wen C. Fong (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), p. 21

    Today, the consensus largely seems to be that Riverbank is indeed an authentic painting by Dong Yuan.