Serrated mountains rise in the foreground behind densely patterned trees. Willows and the sails and spars of several boats appear immediately behind. Beyond a river expanse, populated by several boats and passengers, Chiao Island can be seen, a famous site on the Yangtze River near Yangchou. The finely patterned trees covering the mountain reveal the various structures of the temple mentioned in the artist’s poem. Other boats appear on the river expanse that extends behind the island and ends, in the distance, with a spit of land marking the further shore Above, the full moon is created in the reserve technique in which the background is washed in, leaving the white of the paper to stand for the moon, isolated against the night sky.
The painter of this charming scene, P’an Ssu-mu, is usually referred to as the younger brother of the better-known P’an Kung-shou (1741-1794). Ssu-mu, called Lu-ch’iao, was from Chen-chiang in Kiangsu province, the exact location of Chiao Island portrayed in the present painting. Fifteen years junior to his brother, Ssu-mu was obviously trained by Kung-shou and, further, must have worked mainly on behalf of his brother during the early part of his career. Ssu-mu’s earliest independent painting is dated to 1782, the next to 1789, and then nothing until 1796, two years after Kung-shou’s death when Ssu-mu was already forty years of age.
During this early period P’an Ssu-mu was associated with such literati luminaries as Wang Wen-chih (1730-1802) and Yuan Mei (1716- 1798), contributing paintings on several occasions to accompany their writings. P’an’s primary models during this period were members of the 16th century school of literati painters that had flourished in Suchou, called the Wu school, with works done after Wen Chia (1501-1583) and, especially, Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1555).
During his middle and later career P’an Ssu-mu continued to follow the Wu school of Wen Cheng-ming—the present painting, done during the mid-1830s is very much in the style of the Ming master—but in his latest works there is somewhat of a change of emphasis from the Yuan and Ming masters he had followed earlier to those of the late Ming and early Ch’ing, especially Tung Ch’i-chang (1555-1636) but including Wang Hui (1632-1717) and Cha Shih-piao (1615-1698). By that time Ssu-mu’s son, P’an Kuei, was a practicing artist, and it may be that the new orthodox vision owed something to the influence of the younger artist.
P’an Ssu-mu’s birth and death dates are not recorded in standard texts but several of his inscriptions indicate a birthdate of 1756. His latest paintings known at present are dated to 1843, which would give him a lifespan of 87 years, two more than the eight-five achieved by his primary model, Wen Cheng-ming.