A figure in scholar’s garb fishes from a boat beneath overhanging trees in the foreground . A path then leads to houses in the middle ground situated beneath snow-covered trees, above which rise precipitous peaks. The technique is very assured, with forms drawn expertly, spatial relations handled with great skill, and a complex composition achieved without apparent effort. Noteworthy here is the use of the reserve technique in which the background was washed in with ink-wash, leaving the white of the silk to stand for snow covering the mountain and rock forms. The visual effectiveness of this approach is clear when comparing it to a similar work done fifteen years earlier by the same artist (fig.1). In the earlier work the forms are mostly painted, with little contrast with the background, resulting in a far less dramatic presentation. In both works the purported model was Wang Wei (699-759) of the T’ang dynasty, an association supported by little more than the wintry scene and crystalline trees.
Lan Ying was born in Hang-chou, Chekiang province. According to the Chekiang gazetteer of 1684, Lan displayed his artistic talents at an early age as well as a determination to become a famous painter: ‘Lan was a precocious child. At the age of seven he accompanied someone into the Magistrate’s hall and drew on the floor with charcoal mountainous streams, cloudy forms, forested hills, and precipitous peaks—a thousand mi les were within a foot of painting. When it came to mastering the classics and establishing his household he said: ‘The ancients had painting before writing, so how can I not become famous through painting?’ Lan accordingly fixed his thought on painting…’
After perfecting his technique. Lan Ying traveled from the first decade of the seventeenth century onward in pursuit of the broadening experience and the patronage that were essential to his career as an artist. The T’u-hui Pao-chien Hsu-tsuan of the later seventeenth century records: ‘By nature finding pleasure in landscape, he traveled to Min, Ao, Hsin g, and Hsiang, and passed through Ye n, Ch’in, Chin, and Lo. Since he ‘waded and hunted’ through a great many experiences his outlook was broadened and deepened. Thus when he lowered his brush from top to bottom and from right to left, the ink-wash dripped like rain, his mountains and rocks were eminent and commanding, his upright trees unusual and antique, the roiling torrents as though flying, and the streams and spring seeming to sound.’ To that technical mastery and repertory of natural forms was then added the final ingredient requisite for artistic greatness in seventeenth-century China: art-historical knowledge of past painting styles. This was gained through contact with such literati luminaries as Sun K’o-hung (1532-1610), Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (1555-1636), and Ch’en Chi-ju (1558-1639), who shared their theories with the younger artist and opened to him their collections of earlier paintings. Lan seems to have been with Tung and his Sung-chiang followers quite often during the early years of the second decade of the century, but Lan already had students of his own and the beginnings of a flourishing professional and personal life in Hangchou. Ch’en Hung-shou (1598-1652) studied with Lan from around 1610 onward and Lan’s son, Meng, was born around 1614.
Recorded and extant paintings by Lan dated to before 1620 are very rare, suggesting that he was traveling extensively and more anxious to learn than to produce. From 1620 onward, however, he painted far more often and gradually learned to speak with his own voice while executing a repertoire of earlier styles which included the full range from Sung academic to Yuan literati styles. ‘Beginning from Chin, T’ang, and the two Sung periods there were no styles in which he was not well-versed and wondrous, and his copies and works done after various Yuan masters can all be confused with the genuine ones. In his middle years he established his own gate and hall and separated and distinguished between the Sung and Yuan masters…with no omissions or errors whatsoever.’ The last decade of the Ming dynasty, from around 1634 to 1644, was a very productive time for Lan; he painted frequently, at times superlatively, and with great expressive ease. Lan’s son, who was studying the classics with the Chekiang scholar Ko Cheng-ch’i (d. 1645), was a fully trained painter by the 1640s and may have assisted his father on large commissions.
The overthrow of the Ming dynasty and the fall of Nanking in 1645 to the invading Manchu forces mark an important change in Lan’s life: the convivial, extroverted life suggested by his associations with many well-known people changes after 1645 to a more reclusive one, with known associations limited mainly to family and other professional artists. Some of Lan’s activities during this important period are known today through a play, the T’ao-hua Shan or ‘Peach-blossom Fan,’ in which Lan appears as one of thirty or so principal characters. The play was completed by K’ung Shan- jen (1648-1718) in 1699 after extensive research into events of the period and inter views with those such as Kung Hsien (1619-1689) who had lived through the events. In the play, translated by Ch’en Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton with Cyril Birch, Lan first appears late in 1644 on the road to Nanking, where he will visit his friend, the painter Yang Wen-tsung. Lan meets Chang Wei, a former commander in the Embroidered Uniform Guard who will soon became a Taoist recluse. Early in 1645 Juan Ta-ch’eng and Ma Shih-ying, corrupt officials and the principal villains of the play, visit Yang, who is Ma’s brother-in-law, and see there a snow landscape. Ma, a painter himself, admires the work as a T’ang painting; Yang tells him it is by Lan, a friend who just came to town. Lan next appears while doing a painting of ‘The Peach-blossom Spring’ in screen form for Chang Wei. In a soliloquy Lan notes: ‘From early youth I have won fame as a painter…’ Yang is appointed Governor of Suchou and asks Lan to bring his collection of painting and calligraphy to Suchou, but in the fifth month, as the military situation in Nanking worsens, Yang decides to leave at once. Lan declines to accompany him saying: ‘My home is in Hangchou, how can I go with you?’ The heroine is then left without protection, so ‘Uncle Lan,’ as she calls him, takes her with him. ‘Yonder in the Clouds’ Roost Hills east of the city, where few ever penetrate, is the retreat of Chang Wei, who relinquished his command of the Imperial Guard to practice the Tao in seclusion. I have long wished to submit myself as his disciple. Let us journey there together and see what fortune has in store for us.’ Our last view of Lan is from the seventh month of 1645, when he has reached sanctuary with Chang the Taoist and is painting in their rustic retreat.
Lan’ s appearance in the play belies any suggestion that his occupation of professional painter earned him only low social status. Both villains and heroes alike in the play had heard of Lan, and his fame was part of the verisimilitude that moved the inaugural audience to tears as they watched and re-experienced the events. In paintings done from 1645 onward Lan at times signed himself ‘Lan the Taoist,’ and that too conforms to what is recorded in the play. Lan’s measured withdrawal from society, which he maintained until the end of his life, may have had some specific motivation but could as well have been a general rejection of the base human emotions and actions so evident during those tumultuous months in Nanking. Late in life, Lan also called himself the ‘Stone dhatu,’ or Buddhist recluse, and he seems to have known a number of Buddhist priests who emigrated to Japan in 1653 with the splinter group of Ch’an monks who refused to accept Manchu authority.
During the final fifteen years of his long career Lan continued to paint and seems even to have increased the rate of his production. He became more interested in bird-and-f lower painting, especially after the death of his former pupil, Ch’en Hung-shou, in 1652. During his lifetime Lan trained at least ten students in painting, including his son and two grandsons, Shen and T’ao. All three were active as painters by 1660, the date of Lan Ying’s latest known work. Biographers of Lan say that he lived to more than eighty years of age, or at least until 1664. Lan’s son, Lan Meng, had passed the first-level or district examination but seems not to have proceeded to the provincial or national levels. However, at least by the early 1660s Lan Meng was in Peking, and in 1664 he inscribed one of his paintings as follows: ‘On a Winter day during the year 1664, together with friends I authenticated a painting by Huang Kung- wang. Just then a letter came from the old man of our clan requesting a painting for his eldest brother’s ninetieth birthday, so I here followed the ideas of Huang Kung-wang.’ Thus, in 1664, and four years after his own latest work, Lan Ying requested a painting from his son to give to his own elder brother, ten years senior to Lan himself. By the mid-1660s Lan Shen, one of the grandsons, had also passed the first-level examination as a classmate of Kao Shih-ch’i (1645-1703) and was also active in Peking. In full retirement after 1660, Lan Ying could look with well-earned pride and self-satisfaction on the life he had built on painting. The year of his death is unknown but was before 1669, when Wu Ch’i-chen, according to his Shu-hua Chi, visited Lan’s house and looked at two beautiful paintings by Wu Chen bequeathed to Lan’s son.
Given that both Lan Ying and Tai Chin (1388-1462) were from Hangchou, that both achieved great fame as professional painters, and that they held certain stylistic models in common, it was natural for later critics to unite the two in formulations such as that of Chang Keng’s Kuo-ch’ao Hua-cheng Lu of 1735: ‘The Che school of painting began with Tai Chin and reached its apogee with Lan; thus it is that connoisseurs do not prize his work.’ Chang himself was a pupil of Wang Hui (1632-1717) and an ardent practitioner of the orthodox style of painting which by the second quarter of the eighteenth century was accepted critically as the preferred style of painting. However, that judgment should not be applied retroactively to the seventeenth century; even Chang wrote that Lan was highly admired during his own time, and in the early eighteenth century other evaluations were made of his achievements. For example, Kao Ch’i-p’ei (1660-1734) wrote in 1708: ‘Successive generations of painters have flourished most in Chekiang. Such masters as Tai Chin and Lu Chi were active during the Hsuan-te and Hung-chih eras but that was long ago. During our Ch’ing dynasty more heroes appeared here than in other provinces but today the men are gone and even their paintings are not numerous…’ Kao then praised recent Chekiang masters who were mainly followers and associates of Lan, as well as the master himself. Kao’s perceptive conclusion on Lan was: ‘His ambition was to do the ancients his own way.’
Fig. 1. Lan Ying: ‘Snow Clearing over River and Mountains’ 1623, after Ku-kung Shu-hua T’u-lu, Taipei, 1992, vol. 9, p. 209.