Ni Zan, Artist of the Yuan Dynasty

in art •  last year 

Detail of Ni Zan Portrait. The painting resides in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. The image is in the public domain because of its age (Yuan Dynasty).

Ni Zan was one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). During the Yuan Dynasty, Mongols ruled China. These rulers were not benevolent. They crushed dissent and imposed harsh conditions on the native Chinese. The reaction of many elite Chinese was to withdraw from public life and to engage privately in pursuits that emphasized traditional Chinese culture. Among those who retreated were literati artists. The Four Masters were perhaps the most renown of these artists.

It was essential for the literati to remain low key, to have their dedication to Chinese traditions remain discrete. Ni Zan may have been the most discrete of the Four Masters. It is said he gave away all his possessions and lived on a houseboat. The style of his work is simple, to my eye the simplest of the Four Masters. In subsequent posts I will feature art from the other three Masters: Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen and Wang Meng.


This scroll, Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu, Hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The image is in the public domain


This scroll, Enjoying the Wilderness in an Autumn Grove, also hangs in the Met. The image is in the public domain.


This scroll, Wind among the Trees on the Riverbank, hangs at the Met. The image is in the public domain.

As the casual observer glances at Ni Zan's art, it may seem the three paintings are very much like each other. To see that would be to miss the point of literati art. For the literati, value in the work resides in brush stroke, in small details and refinement of technique that are believed to reveal the character of the artist.

This is a perspective that may be alien to Western viewers. The art invites us to take our time, to reflect, and to rest for a moment in the vision of the artist. I find this a very rewarding exercise.

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