Wang Shimin, Cloud Capped Mountains and Misty Riverside

Wang Shimin, Cloud Capped Mountains and Misty Riverside, 1658 (Qing dynasty), hanging scroll, China (Shanghai Museum, China)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan: [0:06] Here we are in the Shanghai Museum, looking at a landscape painting by Wang Shimin. This is a hanging scroll. The hanging scroll is a very public art form. It’s something that hangs on the wall. The painting is mounted onto silk.

[0:20] So we have this opportunity to look at this entire landscape in one view.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:25] Unlike a hand scroll, which would have unrolled arm’s length at a time.

Dr. Brennan: [0:30] These would have been taken out, discussed, and at times they could be used for decoration. They could hang a little while longer.

[0:37] The idea here is a lot of people could look at this [at] one time, as opposed to hand scroll or even in an album leaf, which only three or four people could see at any given time. You couldn’t fit that many people around the painting.

[0:48] Here we’ve got a larger, grander view. That was something that gave way to these large landscape compositions.

[0:54] Landscape paintings as a genre developed in the Five Dynasties period. We see the emergence of landscape painting as its own genre, not just a setting for narrative or a background for events, but something that is taken as a subject in its own right.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] This is 600 years later. In some way, this is late in that moment of landscape painting. It’s a time of reflecting back on landscape painting and its importance in Chinese art history.

Dr. Brennan: [1:23] That’s what Wang Shimin is doing here. He’s interested in the theories, the principles, the brushwork, the composition, the elements that make for landscape painting.

Dr. Harris: [1:32] Instead of the earlier landscape painters who are immersing themselves in nature and responding emotionally to nature, he’s studying art and making his painting about that art.

Dr. Brennan: [1:45] Here, he’s looking at the brushwork of Huang Gongwang, this Yuan Dynasty painter who’s famous for his “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.”

Dr. Harris: [1:53] The Yuan Dynasty had the Mongols, foreigners, taking over and ruling China.

[2:00] Here, during the Qing Dynasty, which is just emerging, we have the Manchus coming in and ruling China, and so the response by artists is similar.

[2:10] Historically, many artists serve the court. If you are feeling politically ambivalent about the new rulers who’ve come in, you might want to distance yourself from that court.

Dr. Brennan: [2:22] Wang Shimin was one of several artists who was active in the south, in this area called Jiangnan, or south of the Yangtze River. That is a place that was a little farther from the court in Beijing that had a scholarly literati culture established through several of the major cities, Nanjing, Suzhou included.

[2:38] Wang Shimin painted among other artists, wrote poetry among his friends. They shared these works amongst each other and they were interested in studying that brushwork of the past.

[2:48] You can see here that the work is monochromatic, meaning there’s no color. The brushwork here is like a signature. He’s looking back at the forms, specific boulders, the way that Huang Gongwang used the dry brush technique.

[3:01] This idea of scraping the contour lines of each ridge of the mountain.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] To suggest the rock, the granite and the face of the mountain. Distinguishing that between different kinds of trees that we see on the right foreground. Some with short leaves with dark short brushstrokes. Another tree where the leaves are more washy. The tree just to the left where there’s a sense of the ink dripping down.

[3:28] You have a sense of movement of the hand of the artist.

Dr. Brennan: [3:31] You can see that calligraphic link. We’ve also got a scholar sitting in a pavilion, where he’s gazing out over this pond and over the bridge.

[3:39] You can also look up and trace a little path up to another group of huts and imagine that that’s another little retreat nestled into the mountains.

[3:46] This idea of reclusion, something that was a Yuan Dynasty theme, here done again in the Qing Dynasty; the difference here, though, is that in the Qing Dynasty we see a lot more figures.

Dr. Harris: [3:55] This relies on a formula, drawing our eye from the foreground with this diagonal that moves from lower left to upper right. We encounter a stream that then wanders its way down into the body of water we see below.

[4:11] The mist that separates the peaks of the mountains, and the sky above. It is clearly drawing on this tradition.

Dr. Brennan: [4:19] Those foreground trees anchor the entire composition and one large peak at the top. The flavor of this work is subdued. When you see even just the atmospheric details of it, that’s something that you would expect in any landscape painting, misty ravines separating out the peaks, but here you can see that there’s absolutely nothing painted. It’s just this empty void.

Dr. Harris: [4:40] It’s amazing to me that that empty paper is what suggests the mist around the mountains.

Dr. Brennan: [4:47] It starts to blur your view of the trees in the distance as your eye travels up towards that central peak.

Dr. Harris: [4:54] We can see areas where the mountains are painted with wash, ink that’s been dissolved in water.

Dr. Brennan: [4:59] Yes.

Dr. Harris: [5:00] Then other places where the ink is very dry on the brush and has been used to create contours of the mountains.

Dr. Brennan: [5:07] Then on top of it all, these rich details, these textures that unite the entire composition.

Dr. Harris: [5:14] You have these artists who are reclusive. They’re in the mountains, they’re in the landscapes. And that history that distinguishes those artists from artists who are working at the court, who are doing more work that is for the emperor.

[5:30] There is a hierarchy that has developed where that scholar artist is seen as a truer artist.

Dr. Brennan: [5:39] What we call the literati bias. The irony of that all is that these artists, Wang Shimin and several of his cohort, also did paint works at the court. You can see that this is very intellectual approach to art.

Dr. Harris: [5:50] It’s an art that’s made for educated, like-minded artists.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris, "Wang Shimin, Cloud Capped Mountains and Misty Riverside," in Smarthistory, May 10, 2022, accessed May 19, 2024,