History of Sumi-e – Art and Painting in China in the Tang Dynasty (唐朝/ Tang Chao/T’ang Ch’ao)

First Maturation – Accumulation of Subjects and Styles

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) saw a vast growth in painting techniques and motifs. A much admired painting subject were horses, who played an important role in the Tang dynasty expansion, and were thus a common subject. Figure painting was another renowned topic and included not only religious motifs, but also depictions of historical events or narrative illustrations. Pictures of beautiful women, especially court ladies, were common in the Tang dynasty, glorifying their beauty and praising their virtues. The 8th century, however, saw a growing trend towards birds, flowers and landscapes. Especially scholar painters, who painted in their free time, wanted to distinguish themselves from court painters, who worked for money and whose main works included figures or portraits. Thus, topics as flowers or landscapes became popular among scholar painters, although figure painting was never completely abandoned.

Painting Styles in the Tang Dynasty: Color Painting versus Monochrome Painting

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) was the time when painters started to pay more attention to style and technique. A peculiar method in the Tang dynasty developed when painters, namely Li Sixun and Li Zhaodao transferred the vivid style of wall paintings onto paper or silk. Those rich works, executed in blue and green paint and often decorated with outlines in gold, turned to be the base for countless landscape paintings executed in the same manner. Its colorful character suited the taste of the Tang court, and it thus became more and more affiliated with professional painting for the court. A very different direction was taken in painting when the poet, painter and calligrapher Wang Wei started to use only monochrome ink for his works in the 8th century. Wang is believed to be the founder of monochrome ink painting. None of his paintings still exist today, but we know from records and copies of his works that he started this new tradition by only using black ink. It appealed to the scholars due to its simplicity and informality.