Densely textured trees and rocks define the foreground, highlighting a traveller on a path that will ascend to a house nestled among the trees. A mist-filled valley then intervenes between that scene and the mountains looming above, their forms mostly lacking in shrubs and trees due to the distance from the picture plane. The pointillist technique and subtle brushwork recall the work of such Ming dynasty Suchou masters as Wen Cheng-ming (1470-1555), marking the artist as a conservative master within an 18th-century context, the age of the Eight Eccentric Masters of Yangchou.1
Among the several groupings of Yangchou artists that precede the 19th century designation of the Eight Eccentrics is Juan Yuan’s Shih-hua ssu-yu, “The Four Friends in Poetry and Painting,” mentioned in his Kuang-ling Shih-shih of 1799. Chu Mien, Ts’ai Chia, Wang Shih-shen, and Kao Hsiang were all commoners, they shared an interest in poetry and, with the exception of Wang Shih-shen, were all born in Yangchou or its environs.
Perhaps the eldest was Chu Mien, known as a poet excelling in writing poems having a sorrowful or bitter cast. A life of poverty and ill-health provided ample material as well as motivation for these poems. On his deathbed Chu wrote his poetic testament:
In divining for my burial place, rely on my poetry friends;
draw in the sky to represent my sons and grandsons.
Chu was a friend of the calligrapher Yang Fa, included among the Eight Eccentrics on one later list, but he was perhaps closest to Ts’ai Chia, with whom he collaborated to produce an album of poetry and painting, and to whom he gave the following enigmatic advice: “The crazy scholar tries to seize the moon in the sea, his thirsty brush is watered by the sunset in the river…Painting originally lacked models.”
The exact date of Ts’ai Chia’s birth is not recorded in standard sources but from the year 1745 onward he consistently referred to himself as Chu-fang Lao-min, “The Old Man from Chu-fang,” this last being the old name for the district in which he had been born. If that name was intended to take note of his having completed a full course of sixty years, he would have been born in the year 1686. This suggestion is supported by a statement made by Ts’ai Chia himself in a poem written in 1747 that he was then more than sixty years of age: “In my dark-blue shoes and cotton stockings I am called an idle person, having lived for more than sixty years among ordinary people…”2 The artist’s latest known works were done in 1756, and he presumably died in that year or shortly thereafter.
As a boy Ts’ai-Chia is said to have studied silver-craft. Regarding that as unsuitable, however, he gave it up and rather studied painting, making a name for himself in that field before he was thirty years of age. Ts’ai’s career as an artist covers a span of more than forty years, from about 1712 to 1756. During the first decade of this period Tsai Chia painted a wide variety of subjects in a number of different styles, a stylistic and technical mobility that accords with his use at this time of the name Lu-t’ing, “Pavilion Dweller.”
The course Ts’ai set for himself was traditional and familiar: study and imitation of the style of selected earlier masters as a foundation; creation of a personal style based on a transformation of that foundation material. Although his vision of antiquity was derived secondarily, largely through such orthodox masters as Wang Hui (1632-1717), and though the result suffered at times from a lack of richness and spontaneity, this disciplinary stage was successfully completed by about the year 1720. That point in his artistic maturation was further marked by adoption of Sung-yuan as his personal style-name, with the earlier Ts’en-chou retained as an alternate name. Ts’ai Chia commented on the difficulties of the second stage, that of creative transformation: “Studying antiquity is most difficult, and regulation of the brush, whether the stroke is concealed or disclosed, is especially difficult. If the stroke is hidden, the difficulty lies in the extraction of richness; if revealed, then in the suppression of confusion. Those who submit to antiquity while yet transforming it are few.”
In the present “Visiting Friend in Autumn Mountains” Ts’ai worked within the orthodox framework, from which derives the firm underlying structure of rocks and hills, while creating a surface richness through varieties of texture and brushwork. Delightfully rich and charged with life, the organic forms of tree branches, foliage, and grass dottings are transformed into intricate patterns that enliven the entire surface; clarity is maintained through controlled washes and strong contrasts of light and dark which act to distinguish and separate the various areas. Characteristic of his best work, including the present painting, is an insistence on pictorial values in which the visual aspects of the subject are analyzed and expressed through impressionistic techniques, for, as a poet himself, Ts’ai was as concerned with the evocation of specific moods, times, and seasons as with past traditions of painting.
1. For another exceptional work by Ts’ai Chia see Kaikodo Journal I, Spring, 1996, cat. 27.
2. The painting and its inscription are recorded in P’ang Yuan-chi: Hsu-chai Ming-hua Lu, 1909, chapter 10, p. 36.