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A Closer Look at Chinese Painting: Selected Works from the Ages in the Museum Collection

  • #Painting


The development of Chinese painting history can be compared to a marvelous symphony. The styles and traditions of figure, landscape, and bird-and-flower painting formed themes that continue today to blend into a single piece of music in Chinese art. Painters throughout the ages have made up this "orchestra," composing and performing many movements and variations within this long tradition.

During the Six Dynasties period (222-589) to Tang dynasty (618-907), the foundations of figure painting were gradually laid by such important artists as Gu Kaizhi and Wu Daozi. Modes of landscape painting then took shape in the Five Dynasties period (907-960) with distinctions based on geography. For example, Jing Hao and Guan Tong depicted monumental peaks to the north, while Dong Yuan and Juran represented water-filled scenery of hills to the south in Jiangnan. In bird-and-flower painting, the noble Tang court manner was passed down in Sichuan through the style of Huang Quan, contrasting with the more rustic one of Xu Xi in the Jiangnan area.

Also in the Song dynasty (960-1279), landscape painters such as Fan Kuan, Guo Xi, and Li Tang developed new manners based on previous traditions. The transition in compositional arrangement from grand mountains to intimate scenery also reflected in part the political, cultural, and economic shift to the south at the time. Guided by the taste of the emperor, painters at the court academy focused on observing nature combined with "poetic sentiment" to reinforce the effect of both formal likeness and personal expression. Painters were continually inspired by the things around them, leading to the depiction of technical and architectural elements, for example, in the late eleventh century. The focus on poetic sentiment naturally brought together the "Three Perfections" of painting, poetry, and calligraphy in the same work (often as an album leaf or fan) by the Southern Song period (1127-1279). Scholars earlier in the Northern Song era (960-1126), however, thought that painting as an art had to go beyond just the "appearance of forms" in order to express their ideas and cultivation. This became the foundation for a movement known as literati painting.

One of the goals of Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) literati artists, including Zhao Mengfu and the Four Yuan Masters (Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng), was to revive the antique styles of the Tang and Northern Song as a starting point for personal expression. This variation on revivalism transformed old "melodies" into new and personal tunes, some of which developed into important traditions of their own in the following Ming and Qing dynasties. As in poetry and calligraphy, personal cultivation was often an integral part of expression in painting.

Starting in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), painting became increasingly distinguished by local schools forming important clusters in the history of Chinese art. The styles of "Wu School"artists in the Suzhou area, for example, were based on the cultivated approaches of literati painting by the Four Yuan Masters. The "Zhe School," on the other hand, consisted mostly of painters from the Zhejiang and Fujian areas; also active at court, they created a direct and liberated form of monochrome ink painting based on Southern Song models.

The influential late Ming master Dong Qichang and the Four Wangs (Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, Wang Yuanqi) of the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) adopted the literati goal of unifying ancient styles into a “grand synthesis” to render the mind and nature with brush and ink. The result was the "Orthodox School" supported by the Manchu Qing emperors. The court also took a keen interest in Western painting techniques (brought by European missionaries) involving volume and perspective, which became known to and used by some Chinese painters to create a fusion style. Outside the court, the major commercial hub of Yangzhou became a center for "eccentric" yet professional painters who led the trend toward individualism. It spread to Shanghai as well, where the styles of artists were inspired by "non-orthodox" manners, which themselves became models for later artists.

Thus, throughout the ages, one of the hallmarks of Chinese painting has been the pursuit of individuality and innovation within this traditional "symphonic" heritage. The exhibition here represents a selection of individual "performances" from the Museum collection to allow viewers to appreciate and understand Chinese painting. Arranged in chronological order, these works provide an overview of some major traditions and "interludes" in Chinese art history.