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Painting

Egrets on a Snowy Bank
Ma Yüan (fl. ca. 1190-1224), Song dynasty (960-1279)
Hanging scroll, ink and light colors on silk, 59 x 37.6 cm

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Ma Yüan (style name Ch'in-shan) was from a family native to Ho-chung, Shansi, but which later moved to Hangchow, the capital of the Southern Sung. He served as a Painter-in-Attendance at the court of Emperors Kuang-tsung and Ning-tsung. He excelled at painting landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and figures. His innovative and evocative style, along with that of his contemporary Hsia Kuei, is associated with the peak of Southern Sung (1127-1279) painting.

In the lower left corner of this painting with snow and withered branches, three egrets huddle together behind the foreground rock as another one stands on a spit of land to the right. It is not difficult to sense the feeling of cold, because Ma Yüan used a contrast of light and dark to accentuate and define the atmosphere and objects. Layers of ink washes, such as along the contour of the background slope, suggest a brooding darkness just before snow. The artist has also left areas of the rocks and tree blank to suggest the whiteness of freshly fallen snow. This dramatic contrast between jet-black ink and the silk further adds to the wintry sense of cold and solitude. Ma Yüan also focused on the foreground by leaving the background slope void to suggest mist and snow. The dark ink is complemented by the staccato brushwork that defines the outlines and undersides of the forms, suggesting frozen solidity and sharpness. The interior of the forms was accentuated with strokes that look as if hacked by an axe, hence the term "axe-cut texture strokes." Done with the brush held at an angle, they suggest depth with minimum effort. The thin, delicate tree branches that extend down diagonally are typical of the so-called "elongated branch style of Ma Yüan."
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