A Tale of Five Painters – Part II

Ma Yuan

The first artist in this series, Ma Yuan (1160-1225), came from a family of painters, who were all serving at the imperial court of the Song Dynasty as members of the painting academy.  As with all the masters mentioned in this series I won’t go into the biographical data (which usually anyhow are rather sparse and can be found behind the link). Instead I will focus on looking at some of their works.


One of Ma Yuan’s most famous paintings is the one above: “Walk on a Mountain Path in Spring”. The painting is made in ink on silk and has in its right upper corner a poem by Emperor Ninzong that translates as:

The wild flowers dance
when brushed by my sleeves.
Reclusive birds make no sound
as they shun the presence of people.

While in China poems often were added by admirers long after a painting was finished, here the poem seems to have been the very reason for the painting. We can therefore assume that we see here a work that was comissioned by the emperor as illustration for his verses.

The first thing to note in this picture is that the composition is heavly biased towards the left lower corner. Here it is somewhat counter-balanced by the dark ink of the poem. Still, like in many other Ma Yuan paintings the division of the picture is basically diagonal with one half of the paiting being almost empty. This is so characteristic for him that his contemporaries nick-named him “One-corner Ma”. While, generally, diagonals are said to generate a sense of movement, it is anyone’s guess what Ma Yuan’s reasons for use of this artistic device were. It has been interpreted as an expression of gloomy feelings towards the unknown future, which may have been felt by people living in the late Song. In Western Art, this diagonal from the left upper corner to the lower right corner has been called the “sinister diagonal” and was indeed used to give a subdued feel to a picture.

I think, this kind of composition has rather to do with exploration of so-called negative space, something I will cover in more depth in the course of this series. But before doing so, it is worth noting another artistic device Ma Yuan uses with great mastery: the use of leading lines. Leading lines are used until the present day by artists to guide the viewer through a picture. Such lines can be express or implied (e.g. by the direction of a gaze). I have marked below some of the lines used by Ma Yuan:

Ma_Yuan_Walking_on_Path_in_Spring annotated.jpeg

All major lines in the picture point towards the poem,  as if the scholar and the birds are reading it in the sky. In addition, Ma Yuan has paths in his work (like the one drawn here in yellow) that guide us to all the right places. If you look longer, you’ll find such paths from wherever you”enter” the picture.

A further device used by Ma Yuan is to frame his scholar by the willow tree and the shape of the mountain. This technique is called frame-in-frame composition and is useful for highlighting a subject.

It is also used in the second picture, “Scholar viewing a waterfall”, where the scholar and his boy-servant are encircled by the pine tree and the rock. The pine tree and the fence at the same time emphasize the direction of the gaze of the figures towards the water.


The slanted crouch of the scholar figure corresponds to the curve of the waterfall and the mountain in the back. This creates a subdued mood of melancholy. Again, all the lines in the picture converge on one point and draw the viewer to the bubbling water flowing away. Is it an allegory about how the stormy times rush past us?

One can find many more such uses of  visual tools in other paintings of Ma Yuan. Therefore, his use of artistic devices has at times been called too perfect, construed and artifical. For me this paintings have something delicate and fragile. But they are also simply masterclasses in composition.

Next in this series we will look at Xia Gui, who has never been accused of being artificial. Instead, we will indulge in his mastery of natural rythm and elusive atmosphere. See ya!


2 thoughts on “A Tale of Five Painters – Part II

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