Among the masterpieces of Tang (618–907) and early Song (960–1127) painting that are on display in the exhibition's first gallery are a portrait of the imperial charger Night Shining White, attributed to the legendary horse painter Han Kan (active 742–756); monumental landscapes, including Summer Mountains, attributed to Qu Ding (active ca. 1023–ca. 1056); and one of the most important extant examples of Tang standard-script calligraphy, the elegant Scripture of Spiritual Flight, attributed to Zhong Shaoqing (active ca. 713–741). Masterworks such as intimate fan paintings and album leaves as well as rare court-sponsored narrative handscrolls of the Southern Song (1127–1279) are featured in the second gallery.
Scholar-artist paintings of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in the third gallery include some of China's most memorable images using the idiom of landscape painting. The installation juxtaposes the calligraphic Twin Pines, Level Distance of about 1303 by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) with the archaistic blue-green-style Wang Xizhi Watching Geese by Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–before 1307). Major works by the late Yuan scholar-artists Ni Zan (1306–1374) and Lu Guang (ca. 1300–after 1371) are being shown with works by Chan (Zen, in Japanese) masters, who employed a similarly expressive monochromatic style.
The fourth gallery traces the continuation of both Song academic traditions and Yuan scholarly styles during the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). All the major genres–bird and flower images, old trees in a landscape, bamboo, blossoming plum, and figure painting–are represented by major works: Peacock and Hollyhocks by Bian Lu (active mid-fourteenth century), Dragon Pine by Wu Boli (active late 14th–early fifteenth century), Bamboo in Wind by Xia Chang (1388–1470), Plum in Snow by Liu Shiru (active 16th century), and The Scholar Fu Sheng Transmitting the Book of Documents by Du Jin (active ca. 1465–1509).
The development of the scholarly painting tradition during the early and middle Ming dynasty is represented in the fifth gallery by works of Wang Fu (1362–1416), Shen Zhou (1427–1509), and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559).
In the sixth and seventh galleries, outstanding examples of works by a group of early Qing artists are featured. Among them are Wang Shimin (1592–1680), Wang Jian (1598–1677), Wang Hui (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715), whose scholarly manner of painting was adopted as the officially sanctioned style of the Qing court.
The exhibition concludes with a dramatic array of Qing court-inspired paintings. At court, the calligraphic painting style of the orthodox school persisted alongside a new, highly descriptive manner of painting using Western techniques of perspective and chiaroscuro modeling introduced by Jesuit missionaries. These two contrasting styles are apparent in the monumental handscrolls entitled The Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour by Xu Yang (act. ca. 1750–after 1776). A twelve-panel screen painting by Yuan Jiang (active ca. 1680–ca. 1730), Palace of Nine Accomplishments, highlights the conspicuous demand and consumption for large-scale works among private patrons at this time.