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Landscape After Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Picture

Landscape After Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Picture

Landscape After Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Picture, 1574, by Song Xu (1525-1605). China; Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Handscroll; ink and colors on silk. Museum purchase, B67D2.

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This section from a long horizontal handscroll, showing an open river with willows along the bank, was painted with the same kind of brush and ink used for writing. But here the artist has added delicate coloration. Rather than using many colors, the Chinese often tinted their paintings with complementary shades of blue-green and red-orange. This simple balance of cool and warm tones could suggest earth and trees or light and shade.

But brushwork is the true bones and flesh of Chinese painting -- color is secondary. Although this is a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) painting, Song Xu has worked to give it an old-fashioned flavor. He is copying a copy of Wang Wei’s famous Wangchuan Picture, considered the genesis of the true ink painting tradition. For most pictures made in Wang Wei’s time, the 8th century, ink was used only for outlines; then the image was filled in and given substance with shaded colors. Wang Wei invented the method of suggesting depth, color, and texture with ink wash and a variety of brushstrokes. He painted for himself and his intimate friends as an extension of his other literary activities. This distinction between scholarly, amateur painters and professional, decorative painters became very important much later in Chinese history.

Reproducing an ancient painting is a very respected tradition in China in which an artist seeks not only to preserve the form and style of the master but more importantly to capture his spirit. The Wangchuan Picture, long lost and preserved only in copies, was particularly revered by artists because of its great importance in the genre of landscape painting as practiced by the scholar-amateur.

About the Artist
The poet Wang Wei lived in the 7th-8th centuries and was reputedly the first to turn his writing utensils to the task of landscape painting. He laid out on the silk a panoramic vision of his villa at Wangchuan and the surrounding environment. The idyllic beauty of the villa was further celebrated in an exchange of poems between Wang and a friend. The verses that go with this section read:

A small boat sails to the South Hill;
North Hill is hard to reach -- the river is wide.
On the far shore I see families moving,
Too distant to be recognized.
The swaying branches of the willow row mingle their silken garments in caresses.
Reflected shadows ripple in the clear water.
Be not like those willows weeping on the imperial embankment
Which sadden people parting on the cold spring wind.

In his original composition, Wang Wei initiated the tradition of the scholar-amateur artist and the use of the handscroll format for paintings. Although its style is archaic by comparison with later Chinese scholar-painters, it was revolutionary in its time.

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