In a cold and wintry environment various figures attend to their duties and responsibilities: two men pole a boat in the foreground, a scholar stands in a riverside pavilion, attended by two servants, three other figures appear in the house beyond, and six additional persons people the boats and spit of land in the distance. The use of a reserve technique, in which the main portions of the pictorial forms are indicated by the white silk alone, demarcated by the ink used to wash in the entire background, imparts a mood of static quietude, with the whole held in a frozen silence most appropriate to the theme.
Although the painting has been attributed to Yen Wen-kuei of the 10th century, it is certainly later in date, an homage paid, as in many other cases, to the wintry scenes associated with the 10th century artist as well as his 8th century predecessor, Wang Wei (699-759). Most likely it dates between the early 12th century, when there was increased interest in collecting early paintings, and the early Yuan period, when there was also a revival of interest in classic styles. The same relationship obtains in the case of Hsu Tao-ning (ca.1000-after 1066), where the original style was continued in somewhat later manifestations.
The first collector’s seal here, that of Chu Kang (1358-1398), the third son of the founding emperor Chu Yuan-chang, is of great importance. Enfoeffed as the Prince of Chin in northern Shansi province, Chu Kang was of great importance to the empire in protecting and garrisoning the northern frontier. As such, he was granted many favors by his father, and these could well have included gifts from the Yuan imperial collection of paintings. Mary Ann Rogers has detailed the process by which earlier masterworks passed from the Yuan collection to imperial favorites, especially the Mu family of Mu Ying (1345-1392).1 Although the present painting does not seem to bear earlier seals, that of Chu Kang ensures that the work is at least of Yuan date and possibly even earlier.
1. Mary Ann Rogers: “Treasures from the Kingdom of Qian. The Mu Family Collection of Paintings & Calligraphy,” Kaikodo Journal XXIV, 2008, pp. 291-307.