The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011

Old Trees, Wintry Forests, and Ruled-Line Architecture

The reunification of China in 1279 brought together two distinct regional cultures. Under the Jin and early Mongol occupation, North China, largely isolated from the philosophical, literary, and artistic developments taking place in the south, continued the traditions of the Northern Song, which would eventually become a major source of inspiration for early Yuan painters living in South China.

Landscape painters favored the evocative style of Li Cheng (919–967) and his eleventh-century disciple Guo Xi, which set mountains, old trees, and wintry groves against expansive panoramic backdrops. Such imagery could be interpreted in very different ways. Guo Xi likened a tall mountain flanked by lesser hills to an emperor presiding over a well-ordered state. Similarly, a pine tree with widespread boughs might be read as a princely gentleman extending his benevolence over the rest of the forest. Consequently, during the Yuan, many of these so-called Li-Guo paintings were made as tributes to upstanding government officials. But isolated trees, especially those in a wintry setting, might be understood as emblems of the scholar-recluse, or of likeminded individuals who chose to remain aloof from the "dusty world" of politics. Song loyalists and scholar-artists living in voluntary retirement often painted this subject as a statement of their determination to maintain their integrity and independence.

Contrary to these symbolically charged landscapes were the precisely executed architectural renderings, or "ruled-line paintings," that were particularly favored at the Yuan court. This specialized genre, which focused on intricately detailed representations of buildings, boats, and other structures, was practiced primarily by professional painters and valued as a display of virtuosic brushwork.