Figural, not figurative

The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu
Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322)
Yuan dynasty (1260–1368)
ca. 1287

Zhao Mengfu promoted a “return to the spirit of antiquity” (guyi), and here he evoked an early mode of landscape painting, the blue-green style. The flatness of forms, blue and green colours, evenly spaced trees, and wiry thin brush lines are among the many archaic allusions. The scroll’s subject is the scholar-official Xie Youyu (280–322), who once said that although he was uncomfortable in the confines of the court, when surrounded by hills and streams, he had no equal. In this composition, he is aptly portrayed seated in a landscape of his own imagination. The underlying theme of reclusion at court was particularly poignant for Zhao, a descendant of the Song royal family who transferred his loyalty to serve under the Mongol conquerors of the Yuan dynasty.

[Princeton University Art Museum]

Landscape Painting in Chinese Art
October 2004

Seated Musician
Tang dynasty (618–907)

By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. Such images might also convey specific social, philosophical, or political convictions. As the Tang dynasty disintegrated, the concept of withdrawal into the natural world became a major thematic focus of poets and painters. Faced with the failure of the human order, learned men sought permanence within the natural world, retreating into the mountains to find a sanctuary from the chaos of dynastic collapse.

Images of nature have remained a potent source of inspiration for artists down to the present day. While the Chinese landscape has been transformed by millennia of human occupation, Chinese artistic expression has also been deeply imprinted with images of the natural world. Viewing Chinese landscape paintings, it is clear that Chinese depictions of nature are seldom mere representations of the external world. Rather, they are expressions of the mind and heart of the individual artists—cultivated landscapes that embody the culture and cultivation of their masters.

Scholar viewing a waterfall
Ma Yuan (Chinese, active ca. 1190–1225)
late 12th–early 13th century
Zhao Mengjian (Chinese, 1199–before 1267)
Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279)
mid-13th century
Wu Zhen (Chinese, 1280–1354)
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
ca. 1350
Landscapes and trees
Gong Xian (Chinese, 1619–1689)
Qing dynasty (1644–1911)
ca. 1679
Landscapes Painted for Yuweng
Fan Qi (Chinese, 1616–after 1694)
Qing dynasty (1644–1911)
dated 1673

Department of Asian Art. “Landscape Painting in Chinese Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)



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