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Yan Wengui – Landscape & Pavilion painter

    Like many painters from his era, not a lot of information exists about Yan Wengui.

    From the work that survives today, we can see that he was a brilliant and versatile landscape and architecture painter.

    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)

    Biography

    Yan Wengui (active ca. 980 – 1010 AD) (燕文贵 [Yàn Wénguì]), sometimes known as Yan Wenli, was originally from Wuxing (today’s Huzhou, Zhejiang Province).

    Some sources list his date of birth as 967. Either way, he became active as a painter in the early Song dynasty (960 – 1379 AD).

    He served in the military and later as an official and court painter, under the second emperor of the Song dynasty, Taizong (939 – 997 AD).

    Yan worked for the official Hanlin Academy in the Song capital of Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province). This role included painting the walls of temples.

    Today, he is remembered primarily as a painter of landscapes and architectural structures, but he also painted human figures.

    Detail from Myriad Expanse of the Yangtze River
    Detail from Myriad Expanse of the Yangtze River (Song dynasty) by Yan Wengui, handscroll, ink and colour on silk. Full piece 53.4 x 1540.6 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Yan’s painting in early Song dynasty context

    Yan lived during the peak of Song dynasty landscape painting, which itself is considered the peak of Chinese landscape painting.

    The period before the Song dynasty is known today as the Five dynasties period (906 – 960 AD). Despite the disunity of China at the time, painting flourished across the land.

    Detail from Myriad Expanse of the Yangtze River
    Detail from Myriad Expanse of the Yangtze River (Song dynasty) by Yan Wengui, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, Full piece 53.4 x 1540.6 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Figures such as the Jing Hao (ca. 855 – ca. 930) and Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960)  produced a new style of awe-inspiring and almost dreamlike paintings in the north of China

    Dong Yuan (d. 962 AD) produced similarly outstanding paintings in the ‘jiangnan’ region South of the Yangzte region. And his student, the Buddhist monk Juran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD) made it to the newly-founded Song court as a painter.

    Ultimately, the aristocratic Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD) is most well-known for elevating landscape painting to a new level. And Yan’s contemporary, Fan Kuan (active ca. 1023 – 1031 AD), is remembered now as the second major figure in Song landscape painting.

    Yan’s painting style

    Autumnal Landscape by Yan Wengui
    Autumnal Landscape (Song dynasty) by Yan Wengui, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 33 x 179 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Yan clearly worked in the landscape tradition of Li Cheng’s style of painting. 

    However, he also developed his own unique style. It included sharp, realistic views and structures.

    Though he also made use of mist and large mountains, there is slightly less of the otherworldly atmosphere in his paintings than in Li Cheng and Fan Kuan’s works.

    His detailed and clear structures also demonstrate a versatility in being able to depict man-made objects effortlessly beside natural ones.

    Today, Chinese art critics speak of a ‘Yan style scenery quality’ (燕家景致) in paintings.

    Daoist Monastery in Autumn Mountains by Yan Wengui
    Daoist Monastery in Autumn Mountains (Song dynasty) by Yan Wengui, handing scroll, ink and colour on silk, 165.5 x 58.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)