Wang Jian (Chinese, 1598 - 1677)
Landscape in the Manner of Zhao Mengfu, Qing dynasty, 1661
Hanging scroll, ink on paper
36 x 18 in. (91.4 x 45.7 cm)
Gift of Carol S. Brooks in honor of her father, George J. Schlenker, and R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1997
This self-consciously art-historical ink landscape is a classic example of Qing dynasty Orthodox-school painting by one of the leading artists of that movement.
During the seventeenth century, the balance between style and content became a major issue in Chinese painting. For certain artists of that period, a painting's subject was primarily a vehicle for displaying its style: what was depicted became less important than how it was depicted. Understanding such beliefs, which were especially prevalent among painters of the Orthodox school, is essential for interpreting works such as the Oberlin scroll.
One stylistic aspect of painting heavily stressed in Orthodox-school ideology was brushwork. According to Orthodox beliefs, brushwork should be kinesthetic; it should reveal the hand of the artist as well as describe a form. Wang Jian's painting includes a variety of kinesthetic brush techniques, ranging from long flowing strokes and short ropey lines, to soft dabs and sharp splotchy dots. Moreover, it combines passages of "wet" brush techniques, in which the use of a fluid and diffuse ink gives the forms a saturated, solid appearance, with passages of "dry" brush technique, in which the use of a concentrated and slightly dry ink gives the forms a crumbly, weathered appearance. This variety of techniques, and the skill with which they are executed, make this painting a virtuoso example of Orthodox brushwork.
Orthodox-school theory also emphasized composition, which ideally should be complex yet well integrated. The composition of the Oberlin painting exhibits three distinct arrangements of landscape forms. The first is the horizontal, tripartite division between foreground, middle ground, and background. The second is the central vertical axis formed by the tree group in the foreground, the rocky knoll in the middle ground, and the first foothills of the mountains in the background. The third is the diagonal grouping of the forms stretching from the right foreground to the left background. In the work of a lesser artist, such a complicated composition might have pulled the painting apart into visual and spatial confusion. In this scroll, however, the multiple trajectories actually bind the forms of the landscape more closely together, resulting in a complex but harmonious composition that represents the epitome of good Orthodox-school painting.
A third important element in Orthodox-school painting theory was the concept of fang, or the creative reinterpretation of the styles of past masters. According to the inscription in the upper right of the image, this painting follows the style of a Yuan dynasty painter named Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322). Zhao was an extremely important figure in the history of Chinese literati painting. He was among the first Chinese artists to use brush techniques to construct forms rather than merely delineate them, and he was also among the first to use archaism and references to past styles as a deliberate artistic strategy.
By alluding to Zhao Mengfu, Wang Jian invites the knowledgeable viewer to look at this painting in the context of a long artistic tradition, and to compare it mentally to other works in that lineage. In this way, the inscription adds extra richness and complexity to the formal qualities of the painting, while at the same time it enforces a certain social exclusivity. By restricting the full appreciation of this painting to those with an extensive knowledge of Chinese art history and culture, the Oberlin painting exemplifies the Orthodox-school belief that their ideology should dictate not only the creation of the painting, but the viewing of it as well.
Born into one of the most prominent families in Taicang, Jiangsu province, Wang Jian grew up in a privileged, highly cultured environment. Like all male children of his station in later imperial China, Wang's youth and early adulthood were spent preparing for the government examinations and a career in the civil service. In 1633, Wang earned the second-level juren degree, and, because he came from a notable family, was appointed to a government position in Beijing. In 1638, Wang again used his family connections to obtain a position as prefect of Lianzhou in Guangdong province. He stayed in this position until 1641, at which time he retired to his family's estate, where he built a retreat and devoted himself to literary and artistic endeavors. As a former student of Dong Qichang (155-1636) and a member of the famous "Nine Friends of Painting," Wang became one of the most influential painters and theorists of the late seventeenth century. Together with Wang Shimin (1592-1680), Wang Hui (1632-1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715), Wang Jian is considered one of the "Four Wangs" who were the anchors of the Orthodox school during the first sixty years of Qing rule.
Rogers, Howard. Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting from the Forbidden City. Exh. cat., International Arts Council, Lansdale, Penn., 1988, p. 157.
Yu Jianhua. Zhongguo meishujia renming cidian. Shanghai, 1981, p. 157.
With Cheng Chi, Tôkyô (1964)
Sold to Dr. George J. Schlenker, Piedmont, California (1964)
Collection Carol Brooks (his daughter), from whom purchased in 1997
This hanging scroll is painted with black sumi ink on paper (probably bamboo or mulberry pith). The image and scroll are both in excellent condition, with only minor evidence of wear. The dated inscription and signature in the upper right corner are accompanied by one seal of the artist.