When Ma Yuan was born in Qiantang (today’s Hangzhou in the Zhejiang province) around the middle of the 12th century, he could look back on a long family history. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father all had served as painters in attendance to the Song emperors, and he himself, as well as his own son Ma Lin, would pursue this tradition.
There were two factors that probably influenced Ma Yuan’s development of his own painting style – firstly, the traditions of Academy painting and the methods which his ancestors had used, and secondly, the works of Li Tang with his new perspective towards landscape painting. Together with fellow Academy painter Xia Gui, he created a style that would later be known as the “Ma-Xia-School”.
Ma Yuan’s work was admired during his lifetime but rather forgotten after his death, until it was revived in the Ming Dynasty by painters of the Zhe school. But not only Chinese painters were influenced by his works – Japanese masters, such as Sesshū Tōyō or Tenshō Shūbun, clearly quoted his painting methods.
The affinity to painting in smaller formats and depiction of intimate landscapes (as opposed to monumental sceneries) was a common trend in the Southern Song Dynasty, but Ma Yuan added his own sense of aesthetics into the picture by creating daring compositions. By pushing most of the parts in the picture to one corner – the so called “one corner composition”, he created wide spaces and tension between elements.
Ma Yuan’s brushwork is clear and exact. He painted mountains with clean strokes, supplied them with meticulously placed dots for accentuation, and used broader strokes in lighter shades for depicting structures and textures. Ma Yuan was famous for the “axe cut strokes” (斧劈皴), the painting technique he used for depicting the surface of mountains. By holding the brush in a crooked angle, he moved it on the surface as if hitting it with an axe, which causing a frayed, broad ink line.
Another prominent feature of Ma Yuan’s painting style is the clear definition of ink shades. Ma worked with all kind of tonalities and with washes, but the various shades are clearly defined, the outlines are precise and not blurred. Ma Yuan’s works, mainly his landscape paintings, are on the one hand typical works of the Southern Song Dynasty, but then again possess originality and a fresh approach to this traditional genre.