Wang Hui, the most celebrated painter of late seventeenth-century China, played a key role in reinvigorating past traditions of landscape painting and establishing the stylistic foundations for the imperially sponsored art of the Qing court. Drawing upon his protean talent and immense ambition, Wang developed an all-embracing synthesis of historical landscape styles that constituted one of the greatest artistic innovations of late imperial China. Wang’s stature was confirmed in 1698 when the emperor bestowed upon him the encomium “Landscapes Clear and Radiant.”
Wang’s landscape art was not based on direct encounters with nature; rather, he sought to achieve a spiritual resonance with an orthodox lineage of great masters while creatively transforming their styles. Engaging in an inventive dialogue with the past, Wang evoked the stylistic personas of earlier masters while making works that were distinctly his own. Wang’s paintings not only pay homage to his gifted predecessors but demand to be judged in comparison to them.
Traditional accounts of Wang present him as a virtual reincarnation of the ancient masters, but in modern times this tribute has not been viewed as a compliment. As revolutionary China increasingly rejected its past and idealized the new, Wang’s art was criticized as backward-looking and circumscribed by convention. Some Western scholars adopted the same view, labeling Wang’s paintings as “art-historical art” and disparaging him as a mere copyist whose works only restate earlier pictorial ideas. But like a master calligrapher whose writing is a personal synthesis of earlier models, Wang’s paintings combine disparate stylistic influences in totally new and inspired ways to make each “performance” spontaneous and fresh. So while his sources are recognizable, his evocations are never dry or stale; they always depart from their model by ingeniously modifying the composition, reworking the structure, and revitalizing the brushwork in ways that are sophisticated and bold. Wang did not merely imitate the past, he reinvented it.
The Song Dynasty (960–1279)
Wang Hui was deeply inspired by the vast panoramas and rich descriptive detail of early monumental landscape painting (1973.120.1) as well as by the more intimate and abstract modes of early literati painting (1973.121.1). Thanks to his connections with many of the leading collectors of his day, he was able to study examples of early landscape painting firsthand.
The tenth and eleventh centuries witnessed the flowering of one of the supreme artistic expressions of Chinese civilization: monumental landscape painting. During the period of social and political chaos that accompanied the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907, scholars retreated to the mountains, living in hermitages or in Buddhist temples (L.1997.24.1). In nature they discovered the moral order they had found lacking in the human world. For Northern Song (960–1127) artists, the great mountain, towering above lesser mountains, trees, and men, was like “a ruler among his subjects, a master among servants” (1973.120.1). Continuing to uphold reclusion as a pure way of life, the Song landscapists painted “the heart of forests and streams” as a release from worldly concerns (1981.276).
The momentous shift during the early Song—from a society ruled by a hereditary aristocratic order to a society governed by a central bureaucracy of scholar-officials—also had a major impact on the arts. Song scholar-officials quickly laid claim to calligraphy and poetry as expressive vehicles uniquely suited to their class and sought to revive the natural and spontaneous qualities of earlier centuries (1984.174; 1989.363.4). They also applied their new critical standards to painting. Rejecting the official view that art must serve the state, these amateur scholar-artists pursued painting and calligraphy for their own amusement as a form of personal expression (1996.479).
The Yuan (1271–1368) and Early Ming (1368–1644) Dynasties
During his early career, Wang Hui focused his energies on mastering the dynamic compositions and calligraphic brush mannerisms of a select group of fourteenth-century scholar-artists whose expressive reinterpretations of tenth- and eleventh-century models had revolutionized painting. Drawing on the scholar-official aesthetic of the late Northern Song, these Yuan literati artists explored the possibilities of calligraphic abstraction, replacing forms that were essentially representational with forms that were essentially expressive and self-reflective (1973.120.5; 1989.363.33; 2012.526.2).
Early Ming scholar-artists emulated these styles, transforming them into sets of simplified brush conventions (1989.235.1; 1979.458.1). But as the Ming dynasty progressed, these styles became increasingly devoid of expressive meaning. The revitalization of these styles became a primary objective of Wang Hui.
Wang Hui’s Mentors
Under the mentorship of Wang Shimin (1592–1680) (1980.426.2), Wang Hui was thoroughly versed in the art and theories of Wang Shimin’s teacher Dong Qichang (1555–1636) (1986.266.5a–k; 1979.75.2). Dong became Wang Shimin’s tutor around 1606, and fostered the young man’s passion for collecting ancient paintings. Over the next twenty years, Dong passed on many of the finest works from his own collection to Wang Shimin, who became his leading disciple.
Dong Qichang, who had both the eye of a painter and the knowledge of a connoisseur and collector, formulated a systematic theory of literati painting. According to Dong, the true path to innovation was through correspondence with—and transformation of—the old, thus endowing it with new significance: “Copying [a style] is easy; spiritual communion [with the ancients] is difficult.” Complaining that late Ming professional painting had become “sweet, vulgar, fragmented, and flat,” Dong sought to create a revolutionary theory of artistic renewal or reintegration by reasserting the primacy of calligraphic brushwork and form over descriptive representation: “If one considers the uniqueness of scenery, then a painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonderful excellence of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting.”
Dong’s new “orthodox” theory of landscape art was closely linked to his efforts to reenvision an ancient “true” and “correct” lineage of scholar-amateurs. In his theory of the Northern and Southern schools of painting, Dong viewed the Tang-dynasty poet and amateur painter Wang Wei (699–759) as the founding “patriarch” of the Southern School. This tradition was developed by the Southern Tang painters Dong Yuan (active 930s–60s) (L.1997.24.1) and Juran (active 10th century), who were followed by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) (1973.120.5) and the four late Yuan masters: Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), Wu Zhen (1280–1354) (1989.363.33), Ni Zan (1306–1374), and Wang Meng (ca. 1308–1385) (2012.526.2).
Emulating the Ancients: The Formative Years, 1660–70
Born in Yushan (Mount Yu), a village near Changshu, north of Suzhou (modern Jiangsu Province), Wang Hui was a child prodigy whose artistic talents were first recognized at the age of fifteen when he was introduced to the preeminent Orthodox master Wang Shimin (1980.426.2). Wang was so impressed by the young man’s brilliance that he promptly invited him to study and copy all the ancient masterworks at his family villa in Taicang, where he spent years as a guest and retainer. Throughout the 1660s and 1670s, Wang Hui maintained a close relationship with Wang Shimin, who helped him gain access to many of the finest private collections in the region, but in time these collectors became more important patrons.
In the early 1660s, Wang concentrated on mastering the calligraphic idioms of the late Yuan masters Huang Gongwang and Wang Meng, in which the kinetic “hemp-fiber” texture strokes are carriers of the “breath-force” movements of the composition (1989.363.141). By the late 1660s, however, Wang began to explore the more descriptive idioms of the Song-dynasty masters. Expanding on Dong Qichang’s idea of transforming landscapes into calligraphic abstractions, Wang Hui wrote: “I must use the brush and ink of the Yuan to move the peaks and valleys of the Song, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the Tang. I will then have a work of the great synthesis.” Searching for his great synthesis, Wang Hui also embraced the whole spectrum of painting, from the calligraphic and abstract to the descriptive and decorative.
The Great Synthesis, 1670–80
In the late 1660s and early 1670s, Wang Hui began to systematically expand his repertoire of ancient styles in order to achieve a great synthesis, as exemplified in several albums that showcase Wang’s creative reinterpretations of a broad range of earlier styles. This is the period when Wang began to explore the potential of the infinitely expandable handscroll format. Wang’s The Colors of Mount Taihang, dated 1669, is one of his earliest essays at reviving the monumental style of the tenth and eleventh centuries (1978.423). In it, Wang successfully reconfigures the towering vertical mountains of the tenth-century master Guan Tong into the horizontal format through the use of thrusting mountain forms and vigorous brushwork that powerfully convey the tectonic forces of nature.
Wang Hui’s approach to painting is analogous to that adopted by calligraphers, who begin by imitating a specific set of earlier models, then gradually expand their repertoire until they are able to incorporate stylistic influences from various masters, eventually arriving at a personal synthesis that is uniquely their own (1978.13; 1989.141.4). For Wang Hui, each earlier master was similarly envisioned as a set of “ideographic form-types”—foliage and texture patterns and compositional solutions—that defined that artist’s style. The competent replication of these solutions was only the beginning, the ultimate goal being the attainment of what Dong Qichang called a “spiritual correspondence with the model through creative metamorphosis.”
Wang Hui’s Panoramic Landscapes: “Mountains and Rivers without End”
After the suppression of the Revolt of the Three Feudatories in 1681 and the annexation of Taiwan in 1683, the Kangxi reign (1662–1722) entered a time of peace and prosperity. The Kangxi emperor embarked in 1684 on his first Southern Inspection Tour to consolidate Manchu rule over the south as well as to celebrate the beginning of a new era. Wang Hui responded rapidly to this changed political and cultural environment.
During the 1680s, Wang Hui undertook to paint ever longer handscrolls in which he successfully integrated varied regional terrain features and landscape styles. He also expanded his pictorial repertoire beyond calligraphic brushwork to include more intricately rendered architectural elements and figures and a more naturalistic application of colors and ink washes to suggest the veiling effects of moisture-laden atmosphere.
In 1684, just months before the Kangxi emperor’s first tour to southern China, Wang Hui painted a 60 foot-long handscroll for the high official Wu Zhengzhi (1618–1691). The painting revives the grand panoramic landscape style of Yan Wengui (active ca. 970–1030), the patriarch of “mountains and rivers without end.” More than twice as long as any of Wang’s earlier handscrolls, it is very likely that this scroll was intended to demonstrate his ability to assume responsibility for creating a pictorial document of the emperor’s sojourn. An invitation to the capital in 1685 from the high-ranking Manchu Singde (1654–1685), who had accompanied the emperor on his first southern tour, may well have been intended as a preliminary step toward such a commission. But Singde died shortly before Wang’s arrival, so he did not linger in the capital. Nonetheless, the trip led to his forging connections with several powerful court officials, who became major patrons and who were influential in his being selected several years later to create a grand pictorial record of the emperor’s 1689 Southern Inspection Tour.
Copying the Old Masters
All students of Chinese calligraphy and painting begin by making careful copies of earlier models. Wang Hui was no different, but his great facility in emulating earlier styles resulted in his being commissioned by collectors to produce a number of close copies of ancient masterpieces. Many of these copies bear Wang’s signature and date, showing that he continued to create versions of old master paintings throughout his career. But Wang never made line-for-line replicas of his models. Instead, he enlivened his interpretations with his own vigorous brushwork, giving his copies a vibrant life of their own. It is for this reason that his copies were valued almost as highly as the originals.
Wang’s expressive brushwork and kinesthetically charged compositions also reveal his authorship in unsigned evocations. In the eighteenth century, several of these “copies” entered the Qing imperial collection, where they were mistakenly catalogued as originals. Wang’s Landscape after Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Streams and Mountains was so enamored by the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95) that he preferred it to the eleventh-century original.
Artist to the Emperor
The emergence of the Manchu regime as a patron of the arts developed slowly. Artistic production was hardly a priority in the first years of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The imperial workshops had been neglected since late Ming times, and, except for the anonymous artisans who maintained the decoration of the imperial palaces, there was no institutional entity that corresponded to a painting academy. Only in the last decade of the seventeenth century, when the Kangxi emperor commissioned a painting to document his 1689 Southern Inspection Tour, did the arts again rise to prominence in the imperial court.
In 1691, Wang Hui was summoned to Beijing to create a pictorial document of Kangxi’s second southern tour. Dividing the emperor’s journey into discrete episodes, Wang designed a series of twelve massive handscrolls, each measuring from 40 to 80 feet in length (the entire set measures over 740 feet long). Wang first made a set of full-scale drafts on paper, then enlisted a number of assistants to help with the finished version on silk, with specialists for the landscape, architecture, and the more than 30,000 figures. With the completion of this commission in 1698 (1979.5), the grandest artistic production of the age, the Qing court successfully identified itself with the highest scholarly traditions of Chinese art.