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Song Dynasty Landscape Painting

    Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) landscape painting stands out as Chinese painting’s crowning achievement.

    Never before – or after – would there be such innovation and variety in this genre.

    It helped painting attain a status close to calligraphy and poetry.

    Let’s explore its further.

    Detail from A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains by wang ximeng
    Detail from A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (1113 AD) by Wang Ximeng, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51.5 x 1191.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Pre-Song dynasty landscape painting

    Before the Song dynasty, landscape painting was already a developed and popular genre. 

    But it wasn’t the most prestigious genre of painting – that was figure painting.

    During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), a distinct blue and green landscape style appeared.

    And the concept of painting being deeply linked to poetry and calligraphy also developed.

    Once the Tang collapsed, civil wars between competing states broke out.

    Despite its political instability, this half a century (the Five Dynasties period (907 – 960 AD)saw unprecedented development in landscape painting

    Without it, the Song dynasty could not have developed the genre to such a high level.

    Many influential landscapists emerged. The most significant was the Li Cheng.

    Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD)

    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 (李成) was a well-educated aristocrat related to the Tang emperors. 

    He was said to be unwilling to use his art for commercial purposes.

    He died in the early years of the Song dynasty. Thereafter, his name came to represent the educated and sophisticated ideal of a painter

    And his style was adopted (or appropriated) as the official imperial court style. 

    After Li, leading court painters would often be linked to a ‘Li linage’. Many would openly paint in Li’s manner and acknowledge his influence.

    Song dynasty landscape painting overview

    Landscape paintings’ place in Song culture

    Painting was long seen as below calligraphy and poetry in China. 

    All three arts were done with the same tools

    • Chinese writing brush
    • Paper (or silk)
    • Ink
    • inkstone (used to ground down ink with water)

    However, elite Song society was essentially a literary one. 

    Calligraphy was no longer judged for the imperial exams (used to gain government positions until 1905!) But it was still highly prestigious throughout the Song.

    The Academy of Calligraphy members held higher statuses (and gained higher privileges, including pay) than Academy of Painting members.

    The raising status of painting & landscape painting

    However, crossover between the arts became increasingly common for the literati (see below) and art collectors.

    Painting was also harder to replicate and mass publish than calligraphy and poetry. This maintained its exclusivity.

    (Famous calligraphy pieces could be accurately reproduced in copybooks from ink rubbings of stone inscriptions. Paintings still had to be seen in private collections).

    And a mixture of state sponsorship and literati enthusiasm (and theory) helped raise landscape painting above other genres.

    What’s distinct about Song Dynasty landscape painting?

    Despite its variety, Song Dynasty landscape generally is generally associated with some distinct features.

    These often – but not always – include: 

    • A dominant and centrally placed mountain peak
    • Distant but multifaceted views (simultaneously looking up at mountains and down upon their peaks, for example)
    • Placement of some small human figures and man-made structures
    • The presence of water (mist, waterfalls, streams)
    • Monochrome (just black and white) or light use of colours
    • Sophisticated brushwork, shading, and vantage point techniques

    Unlike Tang paintings, there is a coherent sense of a unified view (i.e., rather than a collection of separate objects scattered across a scene).

    (Some even believe this reflects the philosophical unification of Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism.)

    A history of Song dynasty landscape painting

    The Northern Song period (960 – 1127 AD)

    The Northern Song refers to approximately the first half of the Song dynasty. 

    Today, the Northern Song dynasty is generally noted for its political and cultural achievements.

    At its height, it covered an area of approximately 1.7 million square miles (/2.8 million km²) and had a population of approximately 104 million.

    Its capital was in Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province). 

    Early on, its rulers were committed to unification of Chinese lands and reform of its civil bureaucracies.

    As different states and kingdoms were conquered by the Song army, their art collections and artists were often brought to the Song court. 

    Juran (active ca. 960 – ca. 985 AD)

    Seeking the Dao in Autumn Mountains by Juran
    Seeking the Dao in Autumn Mountains (ca. 980) by Juran, hanging scroll, 156.2 x 77.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Juran (巨然 [Jùrán]; pronounced ‘joo-ran’) was the only significant Five dynasties artist to make it directly to the Song court.

    He was a Buddhist priest originally based in the Southern Tang (937 – 975 AD) capital of Jiangning (today’s Nanjing, Jiangsu Province). 

    Along with his mentor Dong Yuan, Juran was regarded as a co-founder of the ‘Southern School’ of landscape painting.

    This often-featured river landscapes populated with rounded hills and soft. 

    Earthly and moist texture effects were created with layers of wet ink. This all ultimately reflected the fertile and warm climate of much of southern China.

    Juran’s View of Mist and Vapours at Dawn was used to decorate the Hanlin Institute. It had originally been commissioned by the official Song Yujian. His son later wrote:

    [Juran’s] brushwork [on View of Mist and Vapours at Dawn] was wild and loose, just like in the works of Li Cheng. But it established his own marvellous school.

    – Song Qi

    Yan Wengui (active ca. 980 – 1010 AD)

    Buildings Among Mountains and Streams by Yan Wengui
    Buildings Among Mountains and Streams (Song dynasty) by Yan Wengui, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 103.9 x 47.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Yan Wengui (燕文贵 [Yàn Wénguì]) was originally from southern China. He worked as an official and general as well as a court painter.

    Yan was clearly heavily influenced by Li Cheng’s ‘northern style’ of painting. Like Li, his landscapes often featured mists and mountains. 

    Some have speculated that Li had not inserted his own architectural figures into his paintings. This was not the case for Yan, who also specialised in architectural paintings.

    Yan’s paintings also stand out for the consistency of repeated elements in them.

    Fan Kuan (active ca. 1023 – 1031 AD)

    Travellers by Streams and Mountains 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)

    Not a lot is known about who Fan Kuan (范宽 [Fàn Kuān]) was (including his real name).

    He started out by directly studying Li Cheng’s paintings. However, he appears to have had some kind of revelation, whereby he decided that:

    […] 吾与其师于人者,未若师诸物也。吾与其师于物者,未若师诸心。
    […] 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.”

    – Fan Kuan

    His eccentric, wondering dishevelled and personality was in stark contrast to the aristocratic, reserved Li (or at least the image created of Li by later generations). 

    However, his paintings are regarded almost as highly as Li’s. From what survives today, Fan’s style creates an imposing and powerful effect. This was summarised as ‘martial’ (武) by Wang Shen (see below), in contrast to the ‘civilian’ (文) style of Li.

    Guo Xi (1001 – 1090 AD)

    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)

    Guo Xi (郭熙 [Guō Xī]; pronounced ‘gore-sheentered the song court at a relatively late age (perhaps as old as 60).

    Within a decade he became the Shenzong Emperor’s favourite painter and was tasked with decorating the most important government buildings with his landscapes.

    The timing of his appointment overlapped with the launching of the famous (or infamous) New Policies. 

    This gave Guo a high level of scope and responsibility in his work. With this in mind, his name was linked to that of Li Cheng in order to imply the continuity and lineage of an official imperial landscape style.

    Despite this, he was still admired and friendly with many of the anti-New Policies politicians. This probably contributed to his work being neglected a couple of decades after his death, under the Huizong Emperor (see below).

    Wang Shen (ca. 1148 – ca. 1103)

    Wang Shen (王诜 [Wáng Shēn]) was a descendent of a founding Song dynasty general who also married into the Song royal family

    He was married to the Emperor Shenzong’s sister and even tutored the future Emperor Huizong.

    Besides painting, he was also gifted in calligraphy and poetry. And his status and wealth enabled him to establish a large collection of artworks.

    Wang himself learned under professional Palace painters, such as Guo Xi, and was friends with literati such as Su Shi (see below).

    His Serried Hills over a Misty River is noteworthy for its innovative use of empty space. The opening of this landscape, done on a handscroll, would have unfurled gradually to viewers. 

    This would have created an almost travel-like sensation of rowing through mist before discovering scenery.

    The Huizong Emperor (r. 1100 – 1127 AD)

    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    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)

    Huizong favoured an imperial landscape style that featured Li Cheng’s style alongside the blue and green Tang style. He had studied painting under two of his uncles, one of which was Wang Shen.

    It’s worth noting that Huizong was not originally meant to be Emperor. Therefore, during his education, he was free to pursue his artistic and literary passions.

    However, when his father, the Emperor Zhezong, died young, Huizong was selected to take over. 

    Huizong spent a lot of time focusing on the academies of calligraphy and painting – to the detriment of other work… In 1125, he was captured by Jurchen soldiers shortly after abdicating. He spent the last decade of his life in captivity in Manchuria.

    Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD)

    Spring Mountains and Auspicious Pines attributed to Mi Fu
    Spring Mountains and Auspicious Pines (date unknown) attributed to Mi Fu, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data). The calligraphy above the painting is by the Emperor Gaozong of Song.

    Mi Fu (米芾 [Mǐ Fú]) was an outspoken and eccentric official, calligrapher and poet. He was awarded a Doctorate of Calligraphy and Painting under Huizong.

    His son, Mi Youren (1086 – 1155 AD) also became an important figure in Southern Song art.

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120 AD)

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings listed and described the Huizong Emperor’s collection of paintings (i.e., the royal collection), alongside biographies of painters.

    It gives art historians an extremely important insight into art and art theory in China up until that point.

    The Catalogue paintings into ten categories, which it lists in order of importance. This listing is revealing, as landscape painting is only listed sixth…

    Its reasoning for this includes the following: 

    From the Tang to present dynasty, famous landscape painters were not classed as painters, [because]they did not emerge from the ranks of the officials and scholars.

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, chapter 10

    The Southern Song period (1127 – 1279 AD)

    The Southern Song was made up of sixteen provinces and had a population of 61.8 million.

    It was formed in 1127, the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty took over northern China and captured the recently abdicated Huizong.

    (Huizong would die in Jurchen captivity a decade later, was ultimately succeeded by his ninth son, Gaozong (r. 1127 – 1129)).

    The remaining Song royal court fled south (‘crossing to the South’), to Hangzhou, which would soon after change its name to Lin’an.

    For the next century and a half, despite the ongoing threat and uneasy truce with the Jin, the Southern Song prospered economically and culturally.

    Li’an: A new and prosperous capital

    Lin’an would be the dynasty’s capital until the Mongols arrived a century and a half later. It was perhaps the largest and most economically prosperous city in the world.

    [Lin’an] was testimony to the genius of man and his ability to dominate the world he lives in. It was a concrete example of his ingenuity and perseverance. But there was also something essentially and peculiarly Chinese about it, of which this description may have provided a glimpse: the remarkable administrative organization behind it.

    – Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion (1250 – 1276) (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1962), p. 55

    Political and economic stability helped painting prosper once again. Patronage from the imperial Academy of Painting as well as wealthy merchants created opportunities for painters.

    Paintings on fans, as opposed to handscrolls or hanging scrolls, became popular, too. And landscape painting remained a prestigious and sought-after medium.

    A new style gradually developed for painters in the Academy of Painting. It almost merged with literati style paintings, except this it made even more sophisticated use of perspective and focus in a way that only trained painters could do.

    Li Tang (1066 – 1150 AD)

    Li Tang (李唐 [Lǐ Táng]) lived and worked during the Northern Song period before escaping to the Southern Song court. He was said to have been kidnapped by bandits during his dramatic journey…

    By the time he was painting in the Southern Song, his style shows a distinct switch in styles from the Northern Song style painting. He was even praised by the Gaozong Emperor for this, which marked a re-branding, if you will, of the official style.

    This new style featured sharper strokes and clearer outlines, but also maintained the use of perspective and mist.

    Zhao Boju (died ca. 1162)

    Autumn Colours and Mountains by Zhao Boju
    Detail from Autumn Colours and Mountains (ca. 1160) by Zhao Boju, handscroll, ink and colour on silk. 56.6 x 323.2 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Zhao Boju (赵伯驹 [Zhào Bójū]) was a relative of the Song imperial family (whose surname was also Zhao). 

    Not a lot is known about him. And the authenticity of his most famous work, Autumn Colours over Streams and Mountains, has been questioned by art critics.

    Xia Gui (active early 13th century)

    Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains by xia gui
    Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains (ca. 1200) by Xia Gui, handscroll, ink on paper. 46.5 x 889 cm. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Xia Gui (夏圭 [Xià Guī]) was an Academy of Painting member whose innovative style features radically simplified landscapes.

    He skilfully used ink application to create objects obscured at different levels in mist and distance. The ultimate effect of this was an almost minimalist style – were it not for the solid, skilfully rendered objects and people in the foreground.

    He was active in court at the same time as Ma Yuan (below). Together, a combining of their two names (‘Ma-Xia’) came to represent the distinct and bold style of southern Song landscapes pieces.

    The Ma family

    Professional painting was sometimes kept as a family trade. This is just like the practice of elite families maintaining their status by giving their sons’ educations in order to become officials.

    The Ma family of Hezhong (Shanxi Province) are a good example of this. Five generations of them served as court painters.

    Ma Yuan (active before 1189 – after 1225 AD)

    When Ma Yuan (马远 [Mǎ Yuǎn]) became a court painter with the Academy of Painting, he was following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. 

    The first distinguished Ma painter, Ma Ben, served under Huizong in the late Northern Song.

    Ma Yuan was follower of Li Tang’s style and he appears to have founded the type of landscape painting thatfeatured scholars gazing out over scenery.

    His paintings often feature clear, details foregrounds that frame distant, empty spaces. This earned him the nickname ‘One Corner Ma’ (马一角).

    Ma Lin (active early to mid-13th century)
    Sunset Landscape by Ma Lin
    Sunset Landscape (1254) by Ma Lin, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 51.5 x 27 cm. Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo. (Image source: Alamy)

    Ma Lin (马麟 [Mǎ Lín]) was Ma Yuan’s son. He also painted for the Academy of Painting.

    Many critics over the years have described him as basically living in his father’s shadow. Not all agree, however. For example, art critic James Cahill (1926 – 2014) wrote: 

    Appraisals of Ma Lin by both Chinese and Western writers… [have often] dismissed him as a faded facsimile of Ma Yuan. But some things in his pictures suggest that the real Ma Lin, a more complex artistic personality than critics have recognized, has slipped away from them. 

    – James Cahill, quoted in Chinese Painting (Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1960) p. 84-5

    Like his father, Ma Lin also tended towards landscapes with sparse, suggestive spaces and senses of distance. 

    Even though he painted for the Academy of Painting, his painting tends towards literati painting in its simplicity and use of poetical references. 

    For example, his Sunset Landscape features lines from ‘Accompanying Governor Wang Ming Boating’ by the Tang poet (and literati favourite) Wang Wei:

    Mountains hold autumn’s colours close,
    Swallows slowly cross the setting sun.

    – Wang Wei, ‘Accompanying Governor Wang Ming Boating’

    The Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234)

    The Jin dynasty was run by Jurchens, who would later rename themselves the Manchu and rule China’s last empire, the Qing (1644 – 1911 AD). 

    The Jin had a population of 44.7 million, made up of 4 million ruling Jurchens, 40 million Han, 4 million Jurchen, approximately 700,000 Khitans and Bohai.

    Chinese culture influenced by the Northern Song dynasty pervaded the Jin. The Jin emperors retained paintings captured from the Northern Song collection and gave patronage to their own court painters.

    Later on, the Khitan official Yelü Chucai (1190 – 1244 AD) was a good example of how Chinese culture had influenced the Jin elite.

    He had not only mastered the ways of Chinese statesmanship and administration (which he taught to the Mongols), but also excelled in the most elite of Chinese arts: calligraphy.

    However, in general, only several paintings from the Jin exist today – in contrast to several hundred paintings from the Southern Song.

    One of these Jin paintings is Li Shan’s (李山) (ca. late 12th early 13th centuries) Snowstorm over Pines and Firs.