In this cold, crystalline and monochromatic world, areas of human habitation are touched with slight color that promises warmth and some respite from the awesome natural environment. The grand design and spacious composition invite comparison with monumental landscapes of the Northern Sung era, and there is a complete absence of the unnatural forms that characterize other later paintings based on early models. In common with those, however, is the self-conscious use of repetitious mountain folds to build up larger forms and the calculated recession created by consistent diminution of size. Whereas the earlier works use atmospheric perspective to good effect, the later paintings are flatter, more confined to the frontal picture surface, and more cerebral in approach.
Although the inscription on the present painting is signed with the name of the great Ming dynasty master Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1559), the writing here is not the same as that appearing on his genuine works, and the style of the painting also differs from that of Wen. It is thus certain that any signature by the original artist was removed when the present inscription was added, which most likely was toward the end of the Ch’ing era and after the colophon on the mounting was written in 1841, since that does not mention the name of Wen Cheng-ming and, to the contrary, refers to a period of time about 100 years after the death of Wen. The present painting can in fact be attributed to the Suchou painter Ku Ch’iao (1614-1695 or later) with certainty on the basis of its very close stylistic similarity to a ‘Snowy Mountains’ picture now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This latter work, done by Ku in 1691, measures 220.5 x 105.5 cm. and hence is also virtually identical in size to the present work.
Ku Ch’iao, tzu Ch’iao-shui, hao Jo-hsieh, was from Wu-chiang, the Suchou region of Kiangsu province. Chang Keng (1685-1760), Ku Ch’iao’s earliest biographer, noted that Ku was famed for his poetry and honored for his lofty spirit. This last is also suggested by Ku’s life-long association with literati who, like Ku himself, came to maturity under the Ming dynasty and lived mainly in eremitic retirement after the Ch’ing dynasty was established in 1644. Ku’s earliest extant painting, an ‘Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden’ dated to 1652, commemorates a famous gathering of literati during the early 12th century, and other of Ku’s works, done jointly with a number of painters, suggest the great popularity of such gatherings during the later 17th century. Mixed albums dated to 1661 and 1672 show that Ku Ch’iao knew the patriarch Wang Chien (1596- 1677) while other albums dated between 1661 and 1695 record Ku’s friendships with such other well-known painters as Wen Tien, Chin K’an, Lao Cheng, and Kao Chien, most of whom were also native to the Suchou region.
Apart from the biography written by Chang Keng for his Kuo-ch’ao Hua-cheng Lu, there is also mention of Ku Ch’iao in the Yangchou Hua-fang Lu.The famous poet-official Wang Shih-chen (1643-1711), who during the early 1660s served as police magistrate in Yangchou, wrote a cycle of poems on the subject of the city; Ku used one of these as the basis for a painting which he then presented to Wang. Other painters had already used this stratagem in order to obtain reciprocal poems from the famous author, so Wang’s reply to Ku Ch’iao included the line: ‘In the Chiang-huai region (of Yangchou) connoisseurs (of poetry) are numerous, and they even use paintings to importune the adept (poet).’ Ku Ch’iao is also known to have painted for Chu l-tsun (1629-1709), another famous scholar and poet of the time.