The controversial artist
The artist who created this beautiful autumn landscape, Zhao Mengfu, was a descendant of the Song imperial family. The Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) fell to the conquering foreign Mongolian government when Zhao Mengfu was in his mid-twenties. His decision to serve the new Yuan court a few years later was not made easily and made him a controversial figure in Chinese art history (others like him settled in the south and lived a reclusive life to show their determination to remain loyal to the fallen Song dynasty). Zhao’s experience as an official of the Yuan dynasty provided him with opportunities to go back and forth between the South and the North. This allowed him to encounter many masterpieces of ancient masters in the northern part of China. Zhao mastered different subject matter and styles. He looked to painting traditions prior to the Southern Song dynasty, and at the same time developed unprecedented artistic ideas.
Mongol Empire mid 13th century (Columbia University)
Painting for a friend
One of Zhao’s most important paintings is Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains. Zhao’s inscription, written in the square-like regular script, notes that the painting was for his close friend, Zhou Mi, who was one of the literati who refused to serve the Yuan court. Zhou was a connoisseur and painter who settled in the southeastern city of Hangzhou, and he had a nickname—“the Hermit of Mount Huabuzhu (abbreviated as Hua).” Zhou’s ancestors were from Shandong Province in the northeast—an area Zhou had never seen in person. However, Zhao had travelled to Zhou’s ancestral homeland as part of his official duties, and he was able to describe and share this experience with Zhou through his painting, which shows the famous Que and Hua mountains (in today’s Jinan region).
Painting from memory
Zhao painted Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains from memory. According to his inscription, the pointed-peak represents the distinguished Mount Hua while in the east of it was Mount Que in the rounded form. The artist used very different strokes of his brush to represent the different mountains, some where he held the brush upright, with the hand in the center of the handle and others made using just the tip of the brush. Some strokes of the brush are long and thin, others ragged and short. Some of these techniques can be traced to the paintings of Dong Yuan, who was active in centuries earlier—in the 10th century.
Throughout the painting, scattered yellow and orange colors make the scene reminiscent of autumn. Closer observation reveals villages with huts, willows, pines, goats and fishermen living a rustic life. It evokes a sense of tranquility. Faithful representation was not a core pursuit of the literati, or scholar-amateur painters. Rather, the painting conveyed Zhao’s impression of Jinan in recognition of his friend’s nostalgic longing for his ancestral homeland. It shows a modest lifestyle of the villagers and the serenity of the area.
Later during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the Qianlong Emperor travelled by a scenic spot that was similar to the painting. The Emperor asked his official to bring Zhao’s painting from Beijing for his appreciation. On viewing the painting, he realized that the geography of the two mountains in Zhao’s inscription was misplaced. The Emperor wrote another inscription stating—“Mount Hua on the east, Mount Que on the west.” Art historian Peter Sturman suggested that the reason behind Zhao’s decision to alter the geography was to situate the viewer of the painting facing south, instead of the north because the latter represented the Mongolian rule. Zhao’s depiction resembled the far-apart mountains’ actual distinguishable shapes. However, the whole painting was not meant to be an exact record of the area, but rather an impression from the imagination of the literati painter.
Painting of guiyi
Zhao’s artistic pursuit of “antique idea” (literal translation of guyi 古意, or “classicism” adopted by art historian Chu-Tsing Li) was one of the most widespread and influential ideas. “Antique idea” implied an emphasis on history, and cultural and artistic heritage. It is a state of mind the literati achieved through absorbing, combining, and reinterpreting previous styles and traditions. Zhao prioritized it ahead of technical excellence in painting and calligraphy. This became a yardstick in evaluating painting for subsequent developments.
We often see classical Chinese painters explicitly acknowledging how their work was rendered in the style of a previous painter or a work. With regard to antiquity, Zhao discarded the Southern Song court style and referred back to the masters of the Tang dynasty, Five dynasties (an era of political upheaval from 907–960 C.E.), and Northern Song dynasty. The application of the blue and green colors was a reference to landscape paintings in the Tang dynasty. The blue and green colors of the marshes in the middle of the painting and the two mountaintops echo each other. There were also references to ancient masters such as Dong Yuan in the Five dynasties period. Zhou Mi recorded that Zhao Mengfu brought back many paintings from the north in 1295, including a painting by Dong Yuan. Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains was evidence of the broad and wide spectrum of masterpieces that Zhao had seen. Compared to the hanging scroll Wintry Groves and Layered Banks attributed to Dong, Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains demonstrates the similarities in depicting the marshes and the various kinds of trees, the reed and the water village.
The painting is a synthesis of Zhao’s preference, understanding, and reinterpretation of traditions. Experiencing the tremendous changes in his country, the painting was a manifestation of Zhao’s response in terms of classicism and also his emotional response to the current situation. His remorse about serving the Yuan court was expressed in his poetries. There were times he hinted that he would like to live a simplistic life like his hermit friends. The harmony and calmness conveyed in his painting could suggest such a vision in Zhao’s ideal state of mind.
Zhao Mengfu’s aesthetic and artistic pursuits in the early Yuan dynasty opened up possibilities for not only the Four Yuan Masters, but also literati painters in later centuries.
This handscroll at the National Palace Museum