Ni Zan - Yuan Dynasty

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       Ni Zan (倪瓚, 1301-1374) is a painter and poet of the Yuan Dynasty. He was born into a wealthy family in Wuxi (無錫), Jiangsu (江蘇).

       During the 1340s a number of droughts and floods caused a famine throughout Ni Zan's region and subsequently lead to peasant revolts. These revolts reached a fever pitch in 1350 due to the government’s use of forced labor to repair the dikes on the Yellow River. Throughout the 1340s, the Yuan imposed oppressive taxes on the rich landowners of the region in order to cover the cost of these natural disasters. There are many divergent opinions concerning Ni Zan’s reaction to these taxes and his ensuing actions are unclear. However, it has been established that he distributed all of his possessions to his friends and moved into a houseboat. He left on the eve of the millenarianist Red Turban Revolt and traveled throughout the relatively peaceful southeast while various revolutionary parties tore through his region of origin. It was at this time that Ni Zan developed his distinctive style.

       Ni Zan's landscapes after 1345 all take very much the same form - ink-monochrome painting of widely separated riverbanks rendered in sketch brushwork and foreground trees silhouetted against the expanse of water. These sparse landscapes never represent people and defy many traditional concepts of Chinese painting. Many of his works hardly represent the natural settings they were intended to depict. Ni Zan advocated that painting should be used to express personal emotions, rather than to depict physical resemblance.

       Ni Zan traveled around southern China during the fall of the Yuan and spent his time painting. During his lifetime, his work was highly valued and it itself was enough to pay for the hospitality provided by his friends as he traveled. He returned to his hometown in 1371 after the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. It was in 1372 that he painted the Rongxi Studio (容膝齋圖), which epitomizes his style. Ni Zan is regarded as one of the “Four Great Masters of the Yuan (元四家)”, alongside Huang Gongwang (黃公望), Wu Zhen (吳鎮), and Wang Meng (王蒙).