Several stalks of bamboo rise above an angular garden rock with strongly textured facets. The bamboo rises gracefully, with clusters of leaves punctuating the journey with variety created by changing orientation from one side to the other and through varying the numbers of leaves in the different clumps. Variation in the ink tonality in the bamboo stalks and leaves yields a semblance of pictorial depth, with the darker elements overlapping and seeming closer to the viewer than the paler forms. The brushwork of especially the leaves marks the artist as a master calligrapher as well as painter, with the vibrant stokes animating the entire pictorial surface.
Tai Ming-yueh was born in Ts’ang-chou in Hopei province. Earning a chin-shih degree in 1634, Tai became President of one of the six boards in the Nanking regime (1644-1646) and later, in 1656, under the Manchus, he served as Minister of the Ministry of Revenue. In addition to his bureaucratic expertise, Tai was also a highly skilled calligrapher and painter, doing landscapes that aimed to revive a Northern Sung approach to painting: “The styles of the Northern Sung masters have not been carried on for a long time. Now I have had a try at it, in opposition to the Sung-chiang manner.” Tai was in fact from the north and may have resented the emphasis of Tung Ch’i-ch’ang (1555-1636) on Yuan over early Sung artists, who were mostly from the north of China. This issue was also taken up by Wang To in a letter written to his friend Tai Ming-yueh: “In regard to paintings that are bland and without strong feeling such as the works of Ni Tsan, although such compositions are suffused with calm, they cannot avoid being dry and weak, like a sick man gasping for breath. Although they are called atmospheric and elegant, they are extremely insipid and limp. Great masters do not paint this way.”
Tai became especially famed for his paintings of bamboo, which were held to be in the style of the Yuan master Wu Chen (1280-1354). The Shun-chih emperor (r. 1644-1661) so appreciated his paintings that he presented Tai with a huge silver seal, saying: “The cloudy peaks of Mi Fu (1051-1107) and Hua-ch’an (Tung Ch’i-ch’ang, 1555-1636) seem like one is face to face (with them), and Ming-yueh is a worthy follower, so for his seal I used silver.” Tai’s paintings are dated
between 1625 and 1666; he resigned from office in 1660, suggesting that he was then around sixty years of age and perhaps was born around 1600.
1. James Cahill: The Distant Mountains, New York
and Tokyo, 1982, p. 166.