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Painting

Waiting for Guests by Lamplight
Ma Lin (fl. ca. 1194-1264), Sung dynasty (960-1279)
Album leaf, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 25.2 cm
Second leaf from the album "Wan-shan hua-ts'e"

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Ma Lin was born into a family from Ho-chung, Shansi (now modern Yung-chi County) that had moved to Ch'ien-t'ang (Hangchow). The Ma family included many who served the court as painters, and Ma Lin was the fifth generation, the son of the famous artist Ma Yüan. Ma Lin served as a "chih-hou" in the Painting Academy during the reigns of Emperors Ning-tsung and Li-tsung. Most of his surviving works appear to have been done at the command (or for the appreciation) of the court. On his paintings, one often finds poems inscribed by Emperor Ning-tsung, Empress Yang (1162-1232), and Emperor Li-tsung. Ma Lin depicted a large variety of subject matter, but judging from his works, he must have been particularly fond of figure painting. His landscapes have a poetic sense through their use of abbreviated brushwork and evocative washes of ink. This painting is signed, "Your Servitor, Ma Lin," and represents one of his surviving masterpieces done for the court.

This work reflects the beautiful scenery of an imperial garden on a moonlit evening and shows the leisurely life of a member of the imperial family. Nevertheless, the interior design of the buildings is classical and simple. The host is sitting on a so-called "general's chair" with footrest and is wearing a plain, long robe. He appears to be appreciating the numerous blossoms on the trees in the courtyard, enjoying the elegant silence of the wondrous scene from the hall. The torches burning on lamp stands extend in two rows from the entrance to the building to add illumination to that of the moon hanging above.

To suggest the dim atmosphere of an evening scene, Ma Lin has applied washes of light ink to the silk. This attention to atmospheric realism is one of the trademarks of Sung painting. In addition, inside and outside the front door, several attendants, all of them wearing caps, can be seen standing about. Since the figures are small in scale, the brushwork describing the clothing is somewhat stiff, yet even the details and folds are still clearly evident. Apparently, the figures were first outlined in light ink, then filled in with colors, and finally outlined again in dark ink. Over the centuries, however, the light colors of the garments faded and flaked off. Ma Lin has presented the composition using a high vantage point. By focusing the scene on the foreground elements at the expense of the background ones, the importance of the courtyard area can be emphasized. So, despite the small size of the painting, a great deal is portrayed. This work has the refined and detailed characteristics of Sung court painting, but retains a lively and refreshing atmosphere.
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