This is a detail of a painting of the legendary eccentric scholar Ruan Xiu who lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Like many anti-authoritarian figures in Chinese history, Ruan would go off by himself into the mountains for long periods of time taking with him just his wine pot and his staff from which dangled some strings of coins.
The 17th century painter, Chen Hongshou has depicted the recluse in an antique figure painting style identifiable by the fine-line drawing of voluminous robes blowing in an imaginary wind and by the squarish head with finely detailed features. Outlines of the iron wire type — evenly thin, long lines turning with an angular movement — were used to depict Ruan Xiu’s clothing. Silk thread lines, made with a brush of only one or two hairs, define his beard, mustache, and hairline. Chen Hongshou was also inspired by the repetitive forms for mountains and rocks and the stiffly outlined schemata for leaves found in antique paintings. He reworked these stylistic mannerisms to create a fresh but disturbingly strange image that reflects his own disjunction with society. His dian, or texture dots, do not create texture or soften the edges of forms but stand out as separate elements marching up the sides of rocks, mountains, and tree trunks.
Chen Hongshou’s artistic talents were noticed at a very young age. When he was four he painted a ten-foot image of Guan Yu, the god of war, on a local scholar’s freshly painted wall. At nine or ten he began studying under Lan Ying, the most renowned artist in Hangzhou. Like Lan Ying and Qiu Ying before him, Chen was a professional painter who mingled with the literati. As an extraordinarily talented artist he suffered from his inability to be fully accepted into the leading circle of scholar-painters dominated by Dong Qichang, the leading artist and critic of the day. But Chen was an eccentric painter unable to belong wholeheartedly to either the circle of amateurs or professional painters. The turbulent times accompanying the disintegration of the Ming dynasty made him long for the past, at least to the time before Dong Qichang and the split between professional and literati artists had been made. He looked back with reverence, painting sometimes weird and always personal visions in the meticulous gongbi style. Notice the elegant line and fine detail. Which kind of line do you think would be harder to make?
Figure painting was popular very early in China. A Tang (618–906) dynasty text which records information on the paintings of the day, as well as on more ancient paintings in various collections, makes it clear that figure painting was far more prevalent than any other subject in ancient times. Often depicting mythological figures or historic heroes, these figure paintings were popular as models of human behavior, demonstrating how one should lead a moral existence both in times of peace and in turbulent times. A few examples of these archaic paintings done with fine even line and slightly awkward postures and proportions had been preserved through the ages and were studied and copied by artists in later periods. The traditional nature of Chinese culture encouraged a reflective look back at past forms and ideas for understanding and guidance in the present.