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, that is, “Snow Clearing over River and Mountains,” dated 1623, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. 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 miles 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, Hsing, and Hsiang, and passed through Yen, 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.