The greatest individualist painter of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Gong Xian was well educated, an accomplished poet and calligrapher, but lived essentially as an impoverished recluse. It is speculated that his association with an intellectual underground opposed to the ruling Manchu government may have cost him a civil post. Gong Xian’s lingering loyalty to the vanquished Ming dynasty (1368–1644) contributed to a feeling of displacement and uselessness that would influence his work throughout his career.
Gong is best known for his dark, brooding landscapes. This painting is a rare example of a so-called “white” Gong Xian. It dates from a period in the 1650s when he worked in Anhui province, where he retreated after the Ming court in Nanjing fell in 1645. The light tonality and linear, spare, ascetic style are characteristic of painting in the Anhui region, as are the dry brush used to simulate the rough landscape elements, the system of overlapping rocks to suggest bulk, the minimal use of texture strokes to describe the craggy rocks and gangly trees, and the pale tones of the composition overall.
Unlike his contemporaries, Gong sought originality in imagery rather than in brushwork. Most of Gong’s works represent a fantastic landscape that describes his state of mind and uneasy inner vision rather than any particular scenic location—as here perhaps in the desolation of the empty pavilion in a sparse, uninhabited landscape.
(Howard Rogers, Kamakura, Japan);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1985.