Sung Dynasty Painting

Sung Dynasty (960-1280)Magpie and hare
Every culture has periods of peace, for the Chinese the Sung Dynasty was a time of widespread peace and prosperity and produced its finest artists, poets and scholars during this period.  The emperors of this time were more dedicated to the arts of peace than the pursuit of war.

Calligraphy and Chinese Painting
Painting evolved from calligraphy.  The brushes, the ink, the ink wells… all were the same, including the techniques.   Looking at a painting, the resemblance between the brush strokes of the painter and calligrapher is clear.   Painting, like the calligraphy of the time was monochromatic.  It was said that a master had no need of colors because his brush contained all colors in one.

During the Sung Dynasty, calligraphy, painting and poetry were highly regarded in the culture and considered literate endeavors, in line with a scholar or philosopher.  Poetry and painting were combined, often by the same hand, a poem further illustrating a painting.

C5-1Heavy with rain the spring flood rushes
rapidly through the night;
Not a soul on the bank; a solitary ferry lies
aslant the water.
Wei Ting-wu

Painting and Nature
Painting originated in nature, and nature is what predominates in Chinese Painting of this time.  Unlike painting in the West, man was seldom givChing4en a privileged place.  In the West, man was seen as lord and master of nature.  The Chinese view of man was the opposite, man was seen as a minute part of nature, only to be represented as a tiny, insignificant figure.  One has to look hard to find man and his dwellings in a Chinese painting of the Sung Dynasty.

It is worth noting that to the Chinese of this time, nature must be alive to be painted.  It would have been inconceivable to cut flowers, place them in a vase and draw them.  This would have been severing the spirit from the object depicted.  The Chinese artist’s greatest strength lay in his power of observation, knowing nature’s subtleties through meditation.

Emotions and Painting
In the West, emotions have always been expressed with abandon, this can be seen in the depictions of martyred saints, and ecstatic lovers etc.  This was not the case in the East, where the Chinese artist looked to nature to express emotions.  The mountains should be tranquil and captivating in spring, fresh and green in summer, clear and neat in fall and melancholy and subdued in winter.  Nature was already speaking through the clouds, the mist, the water, the rocks, and trees.


Excerpts from Art, the Soul of a People by Renée Thibault
Bussagli M (1969). Chinese Painting. Hamlyn House, London.
Munsterberg H (1972). The Arts of China. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Vermont and Tokyo.
Rowley G (1974). Principle of Chinese Painting. Princeton University Press, Princeton.