Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Mi Fu (米黻/ Mi Fei)

A Brief Biography of Mi Fu (米黻/ Mi Fei)

With a mother who was the Emperor Yinzong’s wet-nurse, Mi Fu grew up in the very center of the Chinese empire; knowing the Imperial family and mingling freely among the members of the Song Dynasty rulers. He was a very intelligent boy, particularly gifted in remembering and reciting poems, as well as calligraphy, although he despised formal training.

As an adult, he served in many different positions – revising books in the Imperial library, teaching painting and calligraphy, even being a military governor and the Anhui province. Nevertheless, he never had a high-flying career, but stayed on second-class positions. Mi Fu was regarded as a very capable and educated official, but with a sharp tongue. This might have been the cause why he worked in many different positions at court. Maybe it was because of his eccentricities – dressing flashily in clothes that resembled those of ancient dynasties, being overly concerned with cleanliness and openly criticizing other officials – that he was denied a successful employment. The question is, however, if Mi Fu really wanted to have a high-ranking post. As it is known from his activities as a painter, collector and connoisseur, Mi Fu was one of those painters who did not directly oppose the Imperial Painting Academy, but preferred to not get involved with Academic painting styles and stay independent. He was fond of collecting ink stones and strangely shaped rocks (even declaring one day one of his rocks to be his brother) and devoted himself to expanding and organizing his collection of old paintings and calligraphies. Despite his eccentric personality, he composed a considerable amount of writings, such as poetry, art history essays and painting criticisms.

Mi Fu’s (米黻/ Mi Fei) Painting

Not being a member of the Imperial Painting Academy, Mi Fu did not apply himself to traditional and conservative styles, but simply made up own ones. He developed a method of painting which almost reminds of those of European Pointillists. With this method, elements are not created by outlines, texture strokes or washes, but by numerous little ink dots placed next to each other. The dots, painted with a broad brush and in all kind of ink shades, proved to be most convenient for depicting rainy or misty atmospheres. Mi Fu’s son Mi Youren continued this painting style, which is nowadays known as “Mi dots” (米点/mi dian), named after the two painters. Mi Fu used extremely moist washes, thus conveying the feeling of watching a landscape with mountains surrounded by fog and clouds. By replacing harsh outlines by a lot of little dots, his style appears soft and gentle. In compositions, Mi Fu broke with former traditions, which emphasized vertical lines, such as in the depiction of mountain landscapes with towering mountains. He, however, puts the emphasis on horizontally arranged picture elements and texture strokes, thus receiving a calmer and kinder look for his landscapes.

Mi Fu’s approach to painting – the avoidance of academic painting styles and his devotion to art, poetry and calligraphy – appealed to many literati painters in following generations, and it is not surprising that his characteristic style was often copied, even by such prominent personalities such as Ming Dynasty artist Dong Qichang. Until today, Mi Fu’s original style remains unmistakable.