History of Sumi-e – The Ming Dynasty (明朝/Ming Chao/Ming Ch’ao): Cultural Restoration in Chinese Painting

Art Becomes Classic – Blurring of Boundaries Between Academic and Amateur Painting in China

The end of Mongol rule and the re-establishment of an indigenous Chinese emperor in 1368 led to a revival of the Imperial Academy and the painting styles of the Southern Song (960-1279 CE) and the Yuan (1271-1368 CE) Dynasties. Some painters picked up the painting style of the Southern Song Dynasty, especially that of the Ma-Xia-School. Others continued the tradition of bird-and-flower painting from the times of Emperor Huizong. Other artists brought colors back into picture and revived the blue-and-green painting style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Since most of the Academy painters came from the Zhejiang province, they were named the “Zhe school”. The most notable painter of the Zhe School was Dai Jin. Their counterpart, literati painters from the Wu region in Suzhou, continued in the more expressive and individual styles of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. They are known as the “Wu school”, of whom Shen Zhou is best known for his eclecticism and ability to paint in the styles of former masters. Although this two main currents in painting existed, the boundaries between academic and amateur painters blurred – not in stylistic terms, but in attitude, mostly when some literati, who had devoted themselves to nothing else but painting, started to accept money for their works, which had been not the case in earlier centuries.

Classicism and Secession in Chinese Painting

Among the literati painters, copying the styles of old masters became desirable again. This was different from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE), when a painter’s individual style was cherished. In the 16th century, Dong Qichang, an influential painter, calligrapher and art critic, was the first one to systematically divide Chinese painting in painting schools and evaluate their traditions, tracing back painting lineages and separating them into historical and stylistic epochs. Referring to the two schools of Chan Buddhism, he divided painting in two schools, and came to the conclusion that the “southern” Wu school’s individual and personal styles were better than those of the “northern” Zhe school, which was in his opinion pedantic and stiff. His writings about Chinese art laid the theoretical foundation for succeeding generations.

Innovations in Chinese Painting During Ming Dynasty

When it comes to motifs in the Ming period (1368 to 1644) painting, not many innovations were made. Painters relied mostly of well-known and common subjects such as bird and flowers, figure painting or landscapes. However, one novelty occurred with the combination of calligraphy and painting in a picture. It had been common since the 13th century to provide paintings with a short inscription which gave information about the painter and the painting process. In the Ming Dynasty, painters also added poems to their pictures which would describe the scenery or express their inner feelings. Painters of the Ming Dynasty also tended to add more color to their pictures, particularly green, blue and brown. Painting manuals such as the “Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting and Calligraphy” described for the first time the manifold painting techniques that could be used to depict trees, rocks or other elements of a picture. With growing commerce and contact to foreigners in the 17th century, first influences from European painting reached China, i.e. perspective, shading or the use of saturated colors.