Lineages: Literati Painting in 17th- Century China

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    Wang Jian (1598-1677), Landscape in the Style of Wu Zhen, China, Qing dynasty, dated 1666, Hanging scroll; ink on gold paper, Purchase and partial gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Hutchinson, 1991 (6058.1)

June 20, 2007 - August 19, 2007
Sullivan Gallery

Exhibition Overview

The 17th century witnessed a tumultuous transition between the collapse of the last native Chinese imperial dynasty, the Ming (1368-1644), and the subjugation of China by a foreign power under the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).  During this time, a number of China’s most talented intellectuals turned their attention from the dangerous world of politics to pursuits like such as painting, calligraphy, and poetry.  A period of intense development in the arts, art theory, and art history resulted, which still influences the study of Chinese painting to this day.

At the beginning of the century, the towering figure of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) promoted a new history of painting that divided artists into a “Northern School” of so-called professional artists, and a “Southern School” of literati amateurs.  The former was represented by the meticulous, carefully drawn, and lavishly colored paintings of the court academies, while the latter, including Dong and his group, was defined by individually expressive brushwork that abandoned resemblances to outward forms, but ratherinstead, captured the “spirit” of its subject.  This new aesthetic produced radically innovative paintings, particularly in the landscape genre, that often abandoned all but the most superficial similarities to the natural world, and focused instead on problems of brush technique and compositional strategy in what have sometimes been called “landscapes of the mind.”

Dong’s theories were taken up by one of his students, Wang Shimin (1592-1680), whose prominent family connections made him a strong advocate for the new movement.  Wang became a mentor for the slightly younger painter Wang Jian (1598-1677), who shared the same surname but was unrelated.  Both Wang Shimin and Wang Jian descended from official families, and inherited superb collections of important paintings by earlier masters.  Consequently, they had a direct familiarity with the styles of legendary Southern School patriarchs from antiquity, infusing their work with a special sensitivity to their own place in the history of Chinese painting. 

Wang Jian subsequently discovered Wang Hui (1632-1717), again sharing the same surname but unrelated.  A tremendously talented artist, Wang Hui renewed the momentum of the movement with experiments in a wide variety of styles.  Finally, the movement culminated with Wang Shimin’s grandson, Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715), who not only exceeded the painting skills of his grandfather’s circle, but also wrote the most complete art theoretical statements of the group, and dominated the art world as a trusted advisor to the imperial art collection of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1722).  Together, these four painters would become known as the “Four Wangs,” and the Orthodox School they established dominated Chinese painting through the end of the imperial period, with its impact still felt in the 21st century.

This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see works by each of the masters of the early Orthodox School, including Dong Qichang, Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, and Wang Shimin.  In addition, there are paintings by Yun Shouping, a close friend of Wang Hui and one of the “Six Masters of the Early Qing,” including an unusual handscroll depicting a landscape in the literati style.