Bird's-eye view

Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Villa: Mental Landscape through Painting and Poetry

Author: Audrey Chan '21

 

Wang Wei (699-761 AD) is one of the most famous Tang Dynasty scholars in Chinese history. He is best known for his poetry, many of which feature scenes of serenity and recluse amidst nature, and for his landscape—“Shanshui” (山水)—paintings. Often regarded the founder of the Southern School of Chinese landscape painting, Wang Wei was highly revered during his time as an icon of the Chinese literati class, and continues to be an icon of Chinese art today.

Perhaps his most well-known and famous series of works are those regarding the Wangchuan Villa. Wang Wei first acquired the Wangchuan estate, which had formerly belonged to the poet Song Zhiwen, around year 740 AD. The estate, situated amidst the “picturesque hills outside of the Tang capital, Chang’an,”[1] became the site of his sprawling, rambling garden that included “a large villa, studios, pavilions, walled enclosures” and a variety of other architectural structures.[2] Wangchuan Villa, with its beauty, grandeur and “spectacularly varied scenery…served as a model for all aspects of gardens—in garden design as well as in painting and poetry.”[3] Wangchuan Villa quickly became a symbol for the simple yet sophisticated life of the Chinese scholar, one who retreated into nature in search of peace and refuge.

Wang Wei did indeed feature Wangchuan Villa in as the subject of his painting and poetry. It is believed that Wang Wei painted a mural of the estate on the side of one of the estate’s buildings that was converted into a Buddhist temple after his mother, who had resided there, passed away. Nestled in the painting are twenty individual ‘episodes’ that illustrate prominent scenes on the estate. Along with the mural is the Wang River Collection, a series of twenty quatrains that correspond to each garden scene depicted in the painting and celebrate the beauty of the landscape. The intimate relationship between Wang Wei’s paintings and poems create an intricate mental landscape: Wang Wei’s simple yet powerful diction figuratively paints scenes of scholarly recluse, and embedded in his paintings are the words of his simple yet elegant poems.

Although Wang Wei’s original work no longer exists, various painters in the 17th century have recreated the scenes of Wangchuan Villa. Today, many versions of the Wangchuan Villa scroll exist, but they all retain the original essence, character, and style of Wang Wei’s original work. Perhaps the shocking similarities amongst these recreations are due to the fact that most drew inspiration from a “well-known composition preserved in a stone engraving cut in 1617” that was “based on a copy of Wangchuan Villa attributed to the tenth-century artist Guo Zhongshu.”[4] This composition “depicted a continuous sequence of hills, rivers, lakes, and architectural sites, each identified by cartouches.”[5] A closer look at several prominent painted episodes of one recreation together with the corresponding quatrains reveals how Wang Wei crafted a mental landscape through the confluence of painting and poetry.

 

[1] Alfreda Murck and Wen Fong, “A Chinese Garden Court: The Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 38, no. 3 (Winter 1980-1981): 6.

[2] Robert E. Harrist, “Evoking the Past: Memories of Wang Wei and Lu Hong,” Painting and private life in eleventh-century China (1998): 71.

[3] Murck and Fong, “A Chinese Garden Court,” 6.

[4] Harrist, “Evoking the Past,” 77.

[5] Harrist, “Evoking the Past,” 72-73.

The Wangchuan Villa 

Ming dynasty, 16th century, detail from handscroll. Freer Gallery of Art

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The Wangchuan Villa 

detail from handscroll. National Palace Museum, Taipei

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Song Xu, Landscape in the style of Yan Wengui

Ming dynasty, 1553, hanging scroll. Freer Gallery of Art

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Xiang Shengmo, Crane Release Islet

Ming dynasty, 1653

Scenes from The Story of the Western Chamber

Qing dynasty, 1747, Woodblock print mounted as a hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, with hand-applied color

Harvard Art Museums

Scenes from The Story of the Western Chamber

Qing dynasty, 1747, Woodblock print mounted as a hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, with hand-applied color

Harvard Art Museums

Scenes from The Story of the Western Chamber

Qing dynasty, 1747, Woodblock print mounted as a hanging scroll; ink and color on paper, with hand-applied color

Harvard Art Museums

Xixiangji Harvard.jpg

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