The Impact of Secular Developments on Chinese Painting: The Han Dynasty
Until the Han Dynasty (210 – 220 BCE) painting were mostly of religious nature and showed either Daoist scenes, rituals connected to ancestor worship, or illustrations of Confucian moral themes. These religious or philosophic motifs were not abandoned in the Han Dynasty – mural paintings in particular include depictions of higher beings such as guardian spirits. These pictures are often executed on tiles or bricks; contemporary documents also state that the walls of palaces, halls and houses were covered with paintings. The growing economical expansion and contacts to foreign travelers through the Silk Road caused artists to depict scenes from daily life in this flourishing period merchants, artisans, even slaves and soldiers were illustrated in figure paintings. This variety in themes and motifs was not only limited to painting, but other kind of art as well, such as pottery or lacquerware.
Becoming independent: Chinese Art and Painting in the Jin and Wei Dynasty
Most of the paintings that were created in the Jin and Wei Dynasties show Buddhist themes, mostly as wall paintings, in a style that still followed Indian ones. It was also in the 4th century when painting became an independent art form and was appreciated for its artistic and aesthetic qualities. Painters started to sign their works – Gu Kaizhi’s “The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” is the first picture to bear a signature. Texts about painting, such as the “The Record of the Classification of Old Painters” by Xie He, in which he named the “Six principles of Chinese Painting”, formed the theoretic basement for paintings and painters alike. The Wei Dynasty also saw a first separation between professional and amateur artists, of whom the latter were far better remembered in later times. Dai Kui is said to have been the painter who founded the tradition amateur painting. This division would become even more meaningful in the Song Dynasty, when amateurs, the so-called literati painters, produced mainly landscape paintings. In the Wei Dynasty, however, the members of the courtier class, who painted on a non-professional level, depicted Buddhist and Daoist themes.
First Maturation – Accumulation of Subjects and Styles
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) saw a vast growth in painting techniques and motifs. A much admired painting subject were horses, who played an important role in the Tang dynasty expansion, and were thus a common subject. Figure painting was another renowned topic and included not only religious motifs, but also depictions of historical events or narrative illustrations. Pictures of beautiful women, especially court ladies, were common in the Tang dynasty, glorifying their beauty and praising their virtues. The 8th century, however, saw a growing trend towards birds, flowers and landscapes. Especially scholar painters, who painted in their free time, wanted to distinguish themselves from court painters, who worked for money and whose main works included figures or portraits. Thus, topics as flowers or landscapes became popular among scholar painters, although figure painting was never completely abandoned.