Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Yuan Legacy

A tradition dating to the third century, landscape painting is one of the most outstanding achievements of Chinese culture. Key styles in this genre emerged during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) and are still followed today. This exhibition presented six important styles, including five new ones developed by individual Yuan masters and a continuation of an earlier style. While surviving works from the Yuan are rare, whenever possible, the exhibition included the earliest work in the Freer and Sackler collections together with later examples tracing the distinct characteristics and evolution of each style.

The Yuan dynasty came to power through Mongol military conquest, and many Song dynasty loyalists in southern China resisted serving the foreign regime. Out of this rebellious region, a class of scholar-painters emerged that created art not for rulers or leaders, but mainly for themselves and for each other. These literati championed different ideals than their predecessors, valuing personal and philosophical expression rather than needs and tastes of the imperial court.

Five masters in particular, all southern Chinese literati, created unique styles that had a profound impact on the centuries of Chinese landscape painting to follow: Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), Wu Zhen (1280–1354), Ni Zan (1301/06– 1374), and Wang Meng (ca. 1308–1385).

This exhibition was the second in a series of two exhibitions—Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Song Dynasty was on view through October 26—marking the first time in thirty years a U.S. museum has looked purely at style in Chinese landscape painting. The Freer Gallery possesses one of the most important collections of Chinese painting outside Asia, with many of its works from the Song and Yuan dynasties holding near-iconic status. Many of these works are viewable on the museums’ web resource Song and Yuan Dynasty Painting Collection.