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Yuan Jie (Dates unknown, 16th century), Landscape after Ni Zan (1301-1374), 1554, Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Ink on paper. Mark and Dolores Pratt Collection. © 2001-2014 The Peabody Essex Museum.

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Lan Ying (1578- active beyond 1660), Landscape after Ni Zan (1301-1374), 1647, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Ink on paper. Mark and Dolores Pratt Collection. © 2001-2014 The Peabody Essex Museum.

Both of these landscapes strongly allude to the style of the Yuan dynasty artist Ni Zan. Dry, sparsely applied ink, the ‘one-river, two banks’ composition, the solitary hut in the foreground, were all characteristics of the earlier master, that later artists sought to creatively reinterpret. Although the stylistic references are unmistakable, the individual methods of the respective artists are also apparent when you look at the details of each painting.

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Wang Chen (1720-1797), Album of ten leaves depicting bamboo, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Ink on paper, Mark and Dolores Pratt Collection © 2001-2014 The Peabody Essex Museum.

 

Painting ink renditions of bamboo was a subtle way in which an educated gentleman could demonstrate his calligraphic prowess, and thus his cultural refinement. By using the same media--brush, ink and paper--and the same technique as calligraphy, the painting is meant to be appreciated as much for its fluent brushwork than its resemblance to the plant.

 

Bamboo also embodies the virtues of the ideal Confucian gentleman. Evergreen, it symbolized perseverance under harsh conditions. Supple, it is able to bend in the wind without breaking. Hollow, it represented modesty.

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Guan Dongqi, 19th century, Ink Prunus in the Style of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Artists, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Ink on paper, E303544 © 2001-2014 The Peabody Essex Museum.

By rejecting chromatic color and unnecessary detail, Guan Dongqi focuses the viewers’ attention on the brush’s assertive, vigorous movement and versatility. With quickly executed strokes, the angular branches contrast with delicately wavering stems.

Ink paintings of the prunus were subtle ways for scholar-artists to demonstrate calligraphic prowess, and thus erudition and cultural knowledge. The link with calligraphy is further enforced with the two inscriptions enmeshed in the composition. Ink prunus has been a genre in Chinese painting since a Buddhist monk traced the moonlit shadow of a tree on his window paper in the early 12th century.

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Tang Hong (b. 1926) and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Landscape of HuangshanChina, 1960, ink & color on paper © 2001-2014 The Peabody Essex Museum.