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Temple on a Mountain Ledge by Kuncan 1612-ca.1686
Qing period, dated 1661
Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper

Landscape painting is one of the most significant Chinese art forms. By the 4th century C.E. painters and connoisseurs had begun to claim that landscape painting had a spiritual and aesthetic value above other painting. During the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126), landscape painting became important as an expressive medium.

From the Song period, Chinese theorists began to distinguish between the professional and the amateur ideals in painting. In the 11th century a group of scholar-officials turned to painting as a means of self-expression. The mastery of the brush was a requirement for a high official. As in the case of calligraphy, painting was now also regarded as the mark of the cultivated individual. Rather than create a mere representation of a particular landscape, painters sought instead to capture the essence of a scene and the metaphors it might offer for life.

Kuncan (pronunciation "koon-tsan", 1612-73) is considered one of the four great monk-painters of 17th century China. He spent his youth studying the Confucian classics before becoming a Chan Buddhist monk. He traveled, lived in the wilderness enduring many hardships, and finally became the abbot of a temple at the Bao'en monastery, where he remained the rest of his life. It is this monastery that is the subject of the painting.

How to look at this work
Starting at the bottom, we look down onto a group of rocks and evergreen trees near a river flowing into the distance. A group of houses can be seen on the river bank. A fisherman sits in his boat, floating on the river. Moving upward, we look across at trees and a small waterfall. Above the waterfall is a wooden fence that runs along the contour of the cliff, behind which is a monastery with a open gate. To the right, another boat floats on the river in the distance. Moving upward again, we look up at the steeply rising rocky mountain peaks. Mist encircles the scene.

The painter has used a shifting point of view rather than the one-point perspective we are used to in Western art. The eye wanders through the landscape looking down, then across, then up at the scene.

In the upper right-hand corner of the painting is a poem written by the artist that describes his view of the landscape. He tells of his earlier wanderings and equates them with the Buddhist quest for enlightenment to which he dedicated his life. The painting is signed and dated.

This painting is a personal statement by the artist. With his brush, he has sought to convey his personal experience of a place and his state of mind. His artistic choices indicate that he is a member of the educated elite, or literati. We do not know exactly where this painting was hung, but we do know that paintings like this would have hung on the walls of a scholar-gentleman's study for his enjoyment and contemplation.

How this object was made
The painter has used ink and light colors (browns, oranges and blues). Notice how the artist has used his brush to make the small strokes that build the composition.

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