History of Sumi-e – The Song Dynasty (宋朝/Song Chao/Song Ch’ao) – The Golden Age of Painting in China

Painting of the Song Dynasty

The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) was as the time when painting bloomed. Besides birds and flowers, plants and animals and figure painting, landscapes became an independent topic in painting. The Chinese characters for landscape painting, pronounced “shanshui” (山水), literally means “mountains and rivers”, alluding to the two most important elements in a landscape painting. It had always been a subject in art, but had always played an inferior role until the 10th century, when new concepts arose.

The Role of the Imperial Academy for Chinese Painting in the Song Dynasty

A very important factor for the development of Chinese painting in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) was the Hanlin Calligraphy and Painting Academy, also called the Imperial Painting Academy, which was actively supported by Emperor Huizong, who was a fine calligrapher and painter himself. Artists of the Academy ranked as high as court officials, were responsible for producing imperial portraits, historical pictures and the like. Their painting styles were formal and conservative. Skills were heavily stressed, specially the ability to depict a subject with as much detail as possible. Huizong devoted himself to bird and flower painting and encouraged the Academy members to pay as much attention to details as possible. The depiction of monumental mountains in particular is typical for the early Song Dynasty and was also done by painters of the Academy. Small figures would often be placed somewhere in an epic mountain landscape to emphasize the majesty of nature and the inferiority of Men. Fan Kuan’s “Travelers among Mountains and Streams” is the most prominent example for this concept, which also bore a deeper symbolism – a towering mountain in a static composition represented the legitimate ruler in a stable state order.

The Role of Relocation and Continuity for Chinese Painting in the Song Dynasty

The Southern Song led to a new kind of depiction of landscapes. In 1127, the court under Emperor Huizong left Kaifeng and relocated to the South to make Hangzhou their capital. The Academy was re-established. The different landscapes in this southern part of China inspired painters and led them to change the way of depicting landscapes. Landscapes became more intimate, especially in smaller formats such as the album leaf. Compositions changed from complex to simpler ones, giving the viewer the impression of being a detail from a much bigger-scaled work. A popular topic was the scholar meditating near a stream or watching the moon. Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, two of the most prominent Academy painters of the period and founders of the so-called “Ma-Xia-School” were most influential by reducing the number of elements in a picture and still being able to convey a feeling of limitless space. Brushwork became softer, the depiction of massive, rocky landscapes gave way to a more flowing, lyrical atmosphere. It was also in the later Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) when bird and flower painting became popular again.