Educators: Arts of China, Painting

Appreciating Chinese art is often described with the term du hua, “to read a painting.” On this board, the Freer|Sackler Education Department introduces Chinese paintings from the museum’s permanent collection. These albums, handscrolls, and hanging scrolls portray traditional Chinese subjects, such as landscapes, animals, flowers, and bamboo. To view detailed images and download them in high resolution, visit our online collection at open.asia.si.edu.
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Can you imagine how ancient Chinese artists created architectural drawings without CAD software? They used an ungraduated ruler called a jiechi 界尺, a brush attached to a stick that could move smoothly along a groove, allowing the artist to draw straight lines. This is a jiehua 界畫 (ruled-line) ink painting, the only non-freehand style of Chinese painting, which shows the Yueyang Pavilion in Hunan province.

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

A calligraphic inscription at the top left of this hanging scroll identifies its inspiration as the work of the early master Wang Meng (circa 1308–85). Wang was known for creating landscapes featuring dense textures and full compositions. To express a dense texture in this work, the artist, Wang Hui, used a dry brush with ink to articulate rocks, trees, and water.

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

A handscroll presents an artwork in a horizontal form. It is generally laid flat on a table so that it can be admired section by section, from right to left, as it is unrolled, as if traveling through a landscape. In this way, the format can depict a continuous narrative or journey. This handscroll, which is about 54 feet long, depicts the Yangzi River, among the longest and mightiest rivers on earth. To see the full-length painting, visit the website above and scroll to the left.

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

What kind of brushstrokes did this artist use to depict rocks and mountains, essential components of a traditional landscape painting? In this hanging scroll, the artist first outlined the basic composition with ink, then used moist ink washes to depict the mist-shrouded mountain. The rocks in the foreground are rendered in detail, as if emerging from obscuring mists.

What kind of brushstrokes did this artist use to depict rocks and mountains…

Expertise in judging fine horses has long been a metaphor in China for the ability to recognize men of talent, while superior steeds have often been likened to accomplished scholars. In the upper left of this handscroll, Hongli 弘曆, the Qianlong 乾隆 emperor (1711–1799; reigned 1735–96), added a poem in 1764 that describes this theme.

Horse and Groom, after Li Gonglin Zhao Yong China, Yuan dynasty, 1347 Handscroll; ink and color on paper

Chinese artists often use bamboo as a metaphor. Seen here surrounding a small hut, bamboo symbolizes the gentleman who is able to maintain his moral integrity regardless of adverse circumstances. The artist, Shen Zhou, depicted a scholar sitting in the hut in front of a calligraphy screen with a lute and books.

Chinese artists often use bamboo as a metaphor. Seen here surrounding a small…

The artist, Bada Shanren, a scion of the Ming imperial family, painted these long, upward-lifting lotus stalks with an inked brush. The discipline that this kind of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy.

The artist, Bada Shanren, a scion of the Ming imperial family, painted these long, upward-lifting lotus stalks with an inked brush. The discipline that this kind of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy.

In China, the album format is more intimate than the hanging scroll or handscroll formats, and it is relatively small. Chinese albums usually consist of up to twelve or more folded pages, including paintings as well as calligraphy with wood or brocade-covered covers.  In this album leaf, the artist made one area stand out. The one-corner composition, a favorite during the Southern Song dynasty, focuses attention on the clearly delineated foreground while the remainder of the composition is…

Hostelry in the MountainsArtist: Yan Ciyu 閻次于 (active Medium: Ink and color on silk Type: Album, Painting Origin: China Date: mid- to late century Period: Southern Song dynasty Freer.

Did Chinese artists prefer to work in black and white? Some of them regarded color as a distraction. In depicting a bamboo stem curving down into water, the artist painted forms using a few brushstrokes, varying the darkness of the ink to distinguish the bamboo leaves above the water from those beneath it. The skill needed for disciplined brushstrokes in this handscroll also is required for calligraphy.

Bamboo After Rain on the Xiao and Xiang Rivers by Xia Chang (detail) Ming dynasty, 1464

Poetry, painting, and calligraphy, known as the "Three Perfections," were regarded as the ultimate expressions of Chinese literati culture during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644). Can you find all three in this handscroll? The work reflects several themes related to the life of a scholar artist (literati) in the Ming dynasty, including a love of nature and the joy of meeting with likeminded friends.

Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

What did immortality mean to Chinese people of the fifteenth century? In this typical landscape scene of a thatched hut in the mountains, look for a man floating in the sky on the left side of the painting. The artist, Tang Yin, chose a handscroll format to paint his contemporary Wang Dongyuan dreaming about immortality.

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

Are red ink stamps (seals) and inscriptions part of the painting? In Chinese culture, a seal indicates acknowledgement or authorship, like a signature in Western cultures. Interestingly, those who received or appreciated a painting would often add an inscription or seal to the work as a personal response. A painting would continue to evolve as later owners and admirers appended their own inscriptions or seals.

Zhao Mengfu was a prince and descendant of the Song Dynasty's imperial family, and a Chinese scholar, painter and calligrapher during the Yuan Dynasty.

How did the artist create foreground, middle ground, and background in this landscape painting? In depicting the mountains, the artist displayed his ability to combine bold washes of diluted ink with delicately articulated details. Gradation of ink makes the foreground mountains appear stronger and the mountains in the background appear lighter and less intense. By contrasting foreground and background elements, the artist created an illusion of space and distance.

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

A handscroll allows a viewer to have an intimate relationship with its contents while unrolling the work from right to left, section by section. The calligraphy on this handscroll narrates the scene of Mr. Zhu, a poor but noted poet and book lover, accepting the gift of a donkey purchased with funds collected on his behalf by scholar-friends.

A handscroll allows a viewer to have an intimate relationship with its contents while unrolling the work from right to left, section by section. The calligraphy on this handscroll narrates the scene of Mr. Zhu, a poor but noted poet and book lover, accepting the gift of a donkey purchased with funds collected on his behalf by scholar-friends.

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