The origin of ink-monochrome landscape painting –the main preserve of China’s literati painters over many centuries, evolving into the “ink art” of today–is attributed to the illustrious Wang Wei (699-759) of the Tang dynasty. Wang Wei, a government official who served during the perilous years of the mid-8th century, was distinguished in his lifetime primarily as a poet. He also excelled as a painter and musician, and furthermore enjoyed an early retirement in a sprawling mountainous estate. His life, talents and accomplishments defined the goals of numerous Chinese scholar-gentlemen throughout history. Wang’s literary stature was, in fact, a bulwark for a painting style that prompted Dong Qichang (1555-1636) to recognize him as the patriarch of the Southern School of painting formulated by Dong during the late Ming period when the present artist, Lan Ying, was active.
Lan refers to a specific painting by Wang Wei as his inspiration: “Fisherman on a Snowy River.” The majority of the over one-hundred paintings by Wang recorded in Huicong’s (r. 1101-1126) imperial collection were snow scenes, and presumably such paintings were still extant during the late Ming period, even though none appears to have survived to the present. Nevertheless, wintry scenes with crystalline trees and fisherman plying their boats or huddling against the biting wind will always bring to mind the name Wang Wei. It is noteworthy that this icon of the Southern School, embracing artists who made their main livelihood through means other than their art, was a model for the professional painter as well, and great artists of whatever affiliation transformed that inherited style into uniquely personal languages, as did Lan Ying here.
Lan Ying, born in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, was determined from childhood to make his fame through the art of painting. Through extensive travels and contact with famed literati of the time, including Dong Qichang, Lan was exposed to art historical theory and knowledge and given the opportunity to see fine collections of early paintings, while at the same time having an eye on nature and the natural scenery he experienced through his travels.