I t was during the end of the Northern Song dynasty that Wang Ximeng completed his masterpiece A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains. At the time, the artist was an eighteen-year-old student of the Painting Academy, who accomplished this monumental undertaking in only half a year under the guidance of the Emperor Huizong. A magnificent silk handscroll measuring nearly twelve metres in width and half a metre in height, this blue-and-green landscape is incomparable to any work.
The work by Wang Ximeng was highly acclaimed by the Emperor, and he bestowed it on his prime minister Cai Jing, who later annotated the background story at the end of the scroll. However, after the demotion of Cai Jing, the piece went missing, only later to be added back to the imperial collection during the reign of the Emperor Lizong of the Southern Song dynasty. The landscape work left the imperial palace again during the Yuan dynasty and became part of the collection of Liang Qingbiao’s ‘Studio of Plantain Grove’ in the early Qing Dynasty, after which it was added to the collection of Emperor Qianlong and was illustrated in The Precious Collection of the Stone Canal Pavilion (Shiqu baoji), an extensive catalogue of painting and calligraphy in the imperial collection. In 1922, the last Emperor of China Pu Yi gave the handscroll to his younger brother Pu Jie, who transported the masterpiece out of the palace and hid it with other treasures in the “Xiaobailou” in Changchun. After the victory of the Anti-Japanese War, the work was released to the market and was acquired by antique dealer Jin Bosheng. In 1953, it finally found its permanent home in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Rarely Seen: Zhang Daqian's Intoxicating Golden Blue-green Landscape
A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains is the only extant work by the master Wang Ximeng. Its brushwork inherited the expressive techniques of blue-green landscapes from the Sui and Tang dynasties. Presenting an intricate scene of endless rivers and mountains, the artist used azurite and malachite as the main colours. Terraces, fishing villages, bridges, and figures scattered across the composition, some of which are as small as beans. The layout of the painting is carefully constructed, presenting the grandeur of the scenery on a piece of silk with application of rich colours. Expressing the singular magnificence of the handscroll in an annotation Pu Guang, Yuan dynasty Grand Secretariat at Zhaowenguan, described the work as "a unique piece over a thousand years, comparable to the lone moon in a sky of stars". It is indeed a masterpiece of blue-green landscape that is unparalleled in ancient and modern times.
The term qinglu generally refers to landscape paintings with blue and green recoas the main colours. According to Yuan dynasty painter Rao Ziran’s treatise “Twelve Taboos of the Painting” (Huizong Shier Ji): "for the light ones, use dark green for mountains and green for trees and rocks, and use dying technique for human figures; for the heavy ones, use azurite for mountains and adorned them with trees and stones, meanwhile applying powder pigments on human figures". Here, he makes a distinction between the overall tones of blue-green landscapes which could either be characterised as “light” or “heavy”. The golden blue-green landscape, therefore, is regarded as more skill-demanding. The artist must embellish the azurite and malachite foundation with gold, or use gold lines to highlight mountains, rocks, or residences. Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains is undoubtedly the finest example of heavy blue-green landscape.
Blue-green landscape with its dominant hues of azurite and malachite would as a style first emerge from the Sui dynasty (581-619), specifically from the Spring Excursion by Zhan Ziqian. During the Tang dynasty, these features were further heightened by the father-son duo of Li Sixun and Li Zhaodao, who by adding flecks of gold pigment, were able to elevate unmodulated gemlike sceneries to new heights. This technique was also practiced by Zhang Zao and Wang Wei from the late Tang dynasty and observed on the famous Tang-dynasty mural paintings in Dunhuang. During the Northern Song dynasty as monochrome ink painting became the mainstream, Wang Shen and Zhao Lingrang innovated with a hybrid technique blending monochrome ink, azurite, and malachite. During the reign of the Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty, literati painting flourished and blue-green landscapes became a vehicle to express literary ideals. Their colour palettes were subtler, and their styles were less akin to the orthodox school. In the late Ming dynasty, the interest in painting after the styles of ancient masters rekindled at the advocacy of Dong Qichang, who promoted integrating brushworks of former sages. This was regarded a watershed in the history of Chinese painting.
Zhang Daqian’s blue-green landscape paintings first emerged in the mid-1930s. In Light Snow at Tongguan completed in the 1940s, he inscribed upon the painting: “Dong Qichang had emulated this work for several times”, indicating that Dong Qichang was his introduction into the world of emulation. At the beginning, he copied the style of Shi Tao and the three monks in Qing dynasty under the influence of his teacher Zeng Xi and Li Ruiqing; during this time, he came to the understanding that the brushwork of Shi Tao in fact stemmed from Dong Qichang. Following the footstep of Dong, he extensively studied the styles of various schools, since “a painting style, whether it was after ancient masters or was influenced by the elements from the nature, has an origin like the Yangtze River. One should not neglect its origin.” Zhang Daqian started from Dong and traced backwards to the four masters of Yuan dynasty and masters from Tang and Song dynasties, going back all the way to Dong Yuan and Juran from the Five Dynasties. He was able to extract the essences of former masters and apply them for his own use, taking up his own challenge against his predecessors.
Zhang spared no expense in collecting famous relics of former sages, painstakingly pursuing and tracing their works until he finally came into his own in the 1940s. In his “Painting Collection of Dafengtang” published in 1943, there are two blue-green landscapes after the styles of Yang Sheng. During his three-year expedition to Dunhuang, he learnt the ancient use of colours through studying mural paintings from Six Dynasties and Tang dynasty, noting that “the blue and green colours have not faded and are still distinguishable after thousands of years”. He also picked up the secrets of mixing mineral pigments and gold powder from local Tibetan monks, skills that enabled him to enhance the vibrancy of his works.
Zhang Daqian’s richly-coloured blue-green landscapes can be categorised as follows:
- Wuxia Gorge. Several extant copies, mostly painted in the 1930s. Inscribed “imitating the style of Wang Shen” or “painting after Zhang Sengyao’s style”, these works mostly depict blue-green mountains with red leaves and golden blue-green landscapes.
- Cloud Sea of Mount Hua. Several extant copies. This is a recurrent theme in the mid-1930s, executed either in monochrome ink, ink and colour, blue-green, golden blue-green, or gold outlines. This golden blue-green handscroll was painted in 1936, on which the artist inscribed “when I started painting this handscroll, I was aiming for the style of Zhang Sengyao. Later I added some outlines, therefore it bears resemblance to the brushworks of Li Zhaodao.“
-Golden Clouds of Mount Huang. Not dated. Circa 1940s. Golden blue-green landscape.
- Light Snow at Tongguan. Several extant copies. Mostly painted in 1940s, they were inscribed with “painted after the style of Yang Sheng from the Tang dynasty” or “ (after) the style of Zhang Sengyao” and are mostly “boneless” blue-green landscapes. These was copied after the emulations by Dong Qichang.
- Along the Riverbank at Dusk. Several extant copies. Zhang purchased Dong Yuan’s Along the Riverbank at Dusk with a considerable sum of money in 1946 and hailed it as the treasure in his Dafengtang collection. He emulated the work several times and closely imitated Dong’s use of colours and his “mesh-style” water ripples.
While Zhang mentioned in his above works that he painted after the style of ancient masters, including Zhang Sengyao (circa 500-550), Yang Sheng (circa 714-743), Wang Shen (circa 1046-1100), it would be impossible that Zhang had seen their genuine copies, simply because none of the works by these artists survived. What Zhang studied must have been re-interpretations of the aforementioned works by later artists. Zhang would, however, not mechanically copy these works. One can see from his oeuvre that his brushworks, use of colour, and composition evolved gradually. He made improvements and aspired for innovations during his creative process and eventually broke free from the models set by ancient painters. From his experimental process in the 1930s to his maturity stage in 1940s, Zhang finally came to his own, creating works that excel in intricacy, complexity, and vibrancy. His arduous journey of studying former sages set the ground work for his development of a brand-new style uniquely his own. This is attested by his inscription on Light Snow at Tongguan after the style of Zhang Sengyao, where he recounted his findings on practicing blue-green landscapes for more than two decades:
“This is the style of Zhang Sengyao. It was then passed on to Yang Sheng in Tang dynasty and Wang Ximeng in Song dynasty, and the lineage stopped in Yuan dynasty. During the Ming dynasty, Dong Qichang occasionally painted blue-green landscapes but it never took the centre stage in art circle. It almost disappeared from sight during the three hundred years of Qing dynasty. Some say Hua Yan could paint blue-green landscape, but it was in his own style and far from those of ancient masters. I have been relentlessly practicing blue-green landscapes for twenty years, hoping to revive the beauty of ancient works, which then contributed to a style of my own. For those who have seen my works, they would first be astounded and then be amused.”
The present work depicts the Zhang’s rendition of Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains. It was painted between January and February 1948, when Zhang was living in the Zhaojue Temple in Chengdu and still had excellent vision and physical strength, during the pinnacle of the artist’s height of traditional gongbi landscapes. He unleashed his brushwork on a four-feet silk sheet and titled it “Landscape after Wang Ximeng”, giving a clear indication that he was imitating style of the Song dynasty master’s only surviving work. He copied the poem by Ming dynasty scholar Huang Guan at the top right corner and inscribed the painting with the following: “Ximeng was taught by the Emperor Huizong himself. The original work was fantastic and incredibly intricate. There is only one extant copy by Wang Ximeng and it should be regarded as valuable as the Celestial Ball and the River Map”. These are testament of his great admiration for Wang’s original work. To challenge himself, he discarded the iconic overlapping mountain ranges of the original, instead adopting long stretches of refined scenery found within the Jiangnan landscape, as well as the perspectives used by Dong Yuan and Juran, in order to frame the composition from such a vantage point that expansively encapsulates the bilateral riverbanks overlooking a large waterway. Along the waterfront, the stream meanders, ancient trunks coil, two scholars are accompanied by his servant on a stroll beneath the shade of the trees. On the promontory by the left, a dignified scholar gazes off into the distance, the azure waves extend into the vast expanse, seagulls circle round back, and a sailboat fades beyond the horizon.
Undulating rolling hills stretch across the opposing shore and merge into the sunset clouds, just as the wild geese return. The overall composition has been meticulously constructed, exerting an aura of relaxation and peace, accentuating the never-ending vastness of the river and mountains. In 1946, Zhang acquired three masterpieces by Dong Yuan, including Xiao and Xiang Rivers, Along the Riverbank at Dusk, and Wind and Rain after Spring, and assiduously researched into the styles of Dong Yuan and Juran. It was a period when he made tremendous progress in his emulating skills. The present work, “Landscape after Wang Ximeng”, is an epitome of the artist’s achievement in fusing ancient styles in his own work and creating a style of his own. He changed the original multi-point perspective of the “three distances” to a level-distance view over a river and both its banks, opening up the space between the background and foreground and creating a mesmerizing viewing angle for his audience. In this vertical composition, the vastness of rivers and mountains is accentuated.
Although the style and location of the scenery diverges from the original scroll, both exhibit fine, subtle strokes that are rarely found in Zhang’s other paintings. The flying wild geese and shore birds are as thin as awns, while lucid veins and hooked strokes form ripples on the river surface. The remaining figures, grass on the slopes, and pavilions are also extremely precise, showcasing the artist’s distinguished brushwork and efficacy. The opulent malachite green tones dominating the painting are embellished with touches of azurite blue, red ochre, white powder and bright yellow pigment. Meanwhile, the horizon, silhouette of the mountain ridges and the bottom of the slope are all outlined in gold, luminating the painting into a cloud-pattern brocade. On the surface of the water, the ruffles are threaded with gold flecks that shimmer in the sunlight, a gimmicky technique seldom seen in other works by Zhang. “Boneless painting” (mogu) is embraced to depict the distant hills and mountains, whereby the malachite washes and gold specks are interspersed with rosy rouge glows tingeing the crimson sky. Such dazzling views intoxicate the viewer, as the majestic demeanour of the painting also reveals the cultivated tastes of the literati.
While Zhang had painted certain themes with blue-green techniques repeatedly, there is only one known work after Wang Ximeng’s A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains. Simply just by looking at this painting, Zhang has championed the mogu technique, smelting large swathes of malachite green with gold adornments, enriched by fine detailed strokes that cover nearly half the creative surface. Having exerted his all into this illustrious masterpiece, it was painted for exhibition in Shanghai in May that same year, symbolising the pinnacle of the thaw of ancient methods to welcome the new. In this particular exhibition, the painting was listed as “not for sale”, highlighting just how precious and valuable it truly is. The treasure was added to Sun Zhifei’s collection and has since been passed down through the family. Apart from a brief moment in time following the artist’s death in 1983, which saw the artwork being lent to appear in exhibitions in Shanghai Museum and the National Art Museum of China, the masterpiece had not been shown in public for close to 40 years.
Zhang Daqian's blue-green Landscape after Wang Ximeng generated great excitement throughout the exhibition and previews leading to the Sotheby's Spring Sales Series in 2022. At the Fine Chinese Paintings auction, the atmosphere was thick with excitement in the sale room. And when the hammer came down after a session of intense bidding, Zhang Daqian's masterpiece broke the world auction record for the artist, previously set by Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2016. It is also the most valuable Chinese ink painting ever sold by Sotheby’s and the second highest price for any artwork sold at Sotheby’s Asia.