When looking at Chinese paintings, one might sooner or later stumble over inscriptions such as “Painted in the style of…”. This may be confusing for people who have not yet been exposed to Chinese art. In Western art traditions, it is not desirable to copy another painter’s style. In Asian art, however, copying the style of a former master is not only a way to train oneself in various painting techniques and compositions, but also a sign of respect towards the achievements of earlier artists.
Just as his contemporary Ma Yuan, Xia Gui had an honorable reputation during his lifetime. There is basically no information about his life; neither where he was born, nor how he was educated, but one can assume that he lived in the capital Hangzhou and served as an official under Emperor Ninzong (宁宗; 1168–1224) in the Imperial Painting Academy. In the middle of the 12th century, landscape painters went away from big-scaled, highly complex pictures and produced smaller, more intimate works. Xia Gui belonged to those Southern Song Dynasty painters who were responsible for a new method of depicting landscapes. Nature was not an accumulation of analyzable structures anymore, but a visual experience which should evoke emotions inside the viewer. Xia Gui’s works show a strong influence from painter Li Tang, a painter from the 11th century, who was famous among the Southern Song painters and often copied. Just as Li Tang before, Xia’s strength laid in the depiction of nature scenes. Most of his surviving works are album leaves, in which he freed the composition of unnecessary elements and simplified the difficult structures.