Ma Yuan (Chinese, active ca. 1190–1225)
Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink and color on silk
Image: 9 7/8 x 10 1/2 in. (25.1 x 26.7 cm), with mat: 15 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. (39.4 x 39.4 cm)
Signed: "Ma Yuan"
Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., in honor of Alfreda Murck, 1986 (1986.493.2)
Crafted as carefully as the regulated verse of a Tang-dynasty quatrain, Ma Yuan's Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight is a visual poem evoking a complex sense of time, place, and mood. The browns and blacks in the trees and rocks contrast with the light grayish hues of the cliff and mountain to suggest the mist-filled, moonlit atmosphere of an early spring evening. The thatch roof of a pavilion identifies the place as a garden setting. The white-robed gentleman, framed by the dark angular forms of the landscape, perfectly counterbalances the moon in its setting of limitless space. Recalling a yin-yang cosmic diagram with its implication of positive within negative, light within dark, solid within void, the painting may be read as an emblem of man's dual nature: tied to the physical world, man's spirit is not contained by it but, like the plum, reaches upward to partake of the infinite.