Literati Painting

Written by Juliette Qi


The literati painting or wenrenhua (文人画) is a traditional style of painting in China, which despite taking its definitive form from the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1280 -1368), found its classical form with the artist-scholar Dong Qichang (1555-1636), under the name of the Southern School (南宗画). The literati painting was then adopted in Japan under the name of Bunjin-ga.


Dong Qichang, Wanluan Thatch Lodge


The first characteristic of Chinese literati painting文人画 (wenrenhua), for the Western observer, is that it is a kind of (often monochrome) ink wash painting rather than an oil painting. But it makes use of all the subtle differences of the water-diluted ink to obtain infinite nuances. Applied to paper or silk, this painting technique does not use the Western perspective method: the effects of distance and foreground are achieved by the arrangement of proportions.


Wang e, Room overlooking the River


When he develops his work in his silent study, realizing long-lasting feelings, or when he indulges in improvisation in front of amateurs, the Chinese scholar-painter always cherishes the long tradition and never disdains to work “in the manner of “the former masters. Generally he neglects portraiture and rejects realism, giving man only his rightful place in nature. Landscape painting山水and the painting of flowers and birds花鸟 are, along with bamboo, his favorite and privileged subjects.


Bada Shanren, Lotus and bird
Shitao, Le bateau


Under the Qing, literary painting continued to show remarkable vitality and originality, and many of the most famous artists no longer worked under any master: this was the case of the “crazy monks”, independent painters among which the most famous were Bada Shanren (1626-1705) and Shitao (1630-1707).


The “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou”


Facing the proliferation of talented artists in the Ming and Qing, Chinese historians have tried to divide them into schools like “The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” and “Four Wang”. In the nineteenth century, the creative momentum slowed down and the decline was is constant; many Chinese painters began turning to Western painting and the practice of oil painting. With the end of the empire, the model of scholar-painter also came to its end. Yet, a new type of artist-intellectual, innovative technically and artistically, had emerged from the earliest days of modern Chinese art.



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