Cultural Sources of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting: Literati Painting

What is Literati Painting?

“Shi dai fu hua (士大夫画) “ – “scholar painting”, or “Wen ren hua” (文人画) “literati painting”, describe the painting of amateurs, the literati. The origins of the literati class date back much further, but both terms generally describe paintings executed by scholars in the Song (960-1279 CE) and Yuan Dynasties (1271-1368 CE). Literati were – to put it bluntly – scholars who painted as a hobby; statesmen, politicians or civil servants, who used painting as a way of self-cultivation and compensation for every day’s work. As opposed to court painters or craftsmen, who earned their money by producing portraits and the like, scholar painters never sold their works. They saw the use of brush and ink as a way to convey their inner thoughts, be it through calligraphy or painting.

What are the Characteristics of Literati Painting?

The scholar painter’s motives were typically romantic ones. Scenes from official duties were never used, representative buildings never depicted in their works. The paintings showed an idealized world which stood in contrast to their life as officials. A typical motive would be a reclusive scholar, sitting in a simple, rural hut; writing a poem, painting a picture, or simply enjoying nature. Mainly during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644 – 1912), when more and more scholars had to resign from their official positions, historical figures, such as the officials Tao Yuanming or Su Dongpo, served as inspiration, because political circumstances had forced them to quit their career as well.

The Connection Between Literati Painting and Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Scholar painters played an important role for the development of Chinese ink and wash painting. They were educated men who were trained in the art of painting, and were, although calling themselves “amateurs”, highly skilled in handling the brush. They had the freedom to experiment with flow and style (as opposed to Academy painters or craftsmen, who had great skills, but were limited in their painting boundaries). In addition to that, many theoretical texts about art history and art theory were written by scholars for scholars. It is because those texts still exist, we have a much better knowledge about literati painting, aesthetics and techniques. Literati painters preferred monochrome painting over colors, trying to paint according to the saying that one could depict all five colors by only using black ink.