The Life and Times of Ni Zan (倪瓒 / Ni Tsan)
When Ni Zan (1301–1374) was born at the beginning of the 14th century, the Mongol rulers had been occupying the Chinese throne for about twenty years. Being suspicious about Chinese officials, they rather employed their own people for high-ranking positions. Many Chinese either refused to serve under the foreign rulers or wouldn’t even get the chance to do so. As for Ni Zan, the latter was the case. He was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed an extensive Confucian education, but never had the opportunity to get a position at court. Contemporary writings describe him as being arrogant, eccentric and over-sensitive, with constant fear of germs and the like. How much of this is true and how much made up rests unknown. In the 1340s, when a disastrous flood caused famines and the Mongol rulers imposed oppressive taxes, Ni Zan gave up his possessions to live on a houseboat and dedicate himself to painting.
Ni Zans Painting Style
Ni Zan is named as one of the “The Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty”, but his style changed and developed during his lifetime. It was not until his forties that he started to paint landscapes in his emblematic, melancholic style. His best-known work with a distinctive brushwork technique is “The Rongxi Studio”, a hanging scroll which depicts an empty hut in a landscape. This picture today epitomizes Ni Zan’s reduced, simple compositions and characteristic painting style. Take a look at the “Rongxi Studio” and you will see that Ni Zan used very dark, but dry ink for painting. The ink is in fact so dry that his strokes appear chalky, almost like a preparatory drawing. No signs of ink washes are visible. The lonely hut and barren landscape without inhabitants convey a feeling of loneliness, but also peacefulness, such as if he had depicted his inner longing for a calm and quiet retreat. By reducing the methods of brushwork to a minimum, each stroke becomes important.
Ni Zan’s painting style truly represents the literati’s concept of letting every single brush stroke convey the inner emotions of a painter. “The Rongxi Studio” is just one of many paintings with a similar composition and painting style – a landscape depicted from a top view, with trees in the foreground, growing on a shoreline. Despite the recurring motive, Ni Zans paintings never fail to be unique.