The majestic Riverbank is an exceedingly rare and important survivor from the formative days of Chinese landscape painting..."
The majestic Riverbank is an exceedingly rare and important survivor from the formative days of Chinese landscape painting. This image of a scholar's retreat nestled in a windswept mountain defile offers a window onto the pivotal but mysterious tenth century, when images of nature rose to prominence, replacing pictures of the human figure as the dominant form of pictorial expression for ambitious artists. Only a handful of paintings survive from this period, but they, along with textual evidence, indicate that it was a time of epochal transformation, when landscape painting made a quantum leap in scale, sophistication, and ambition. Riverbank is a key piece of evidence of this revolution.
The painting's central scene takes place in a small waterside pavilion, where a scholar sits gazing at the turbulent surface of a river. Behind him, his wife and two children are framed against a screen of cursive calligraphy. In a complex of buildings that extends back from the pavilion, figures busily engage in housework. Weary travelers approach the buildings on a path, completing the final stage of their journey as a powerful wind arises, bending the trees around them from right to left. Towering and tortuous mountain forms jut and twist with violent force as waterfalls plunge to the river below. At the center of this awesome vision of nature stands the scholar's retreat, a haven of peace and respite from the world beyond its walls.
Riverbank's landscape forms are described through subtly applied washes of diffuse ink that accumulate into alternating bands of light and dark. The softly rubbed-on texturing and the absence of distinct contour lines reflect the transformation of an earlier tradition preserved in paintings of the Tang dynasty (618–907). By the middle of the Northern Song dynasty in the eleventh century, signature linework had become the landscape painter's key tool in describing landscape forms and textures, supplanting the softer washes of the Tang. Riverbank falls in between these two traditions, placing it squarely in the momentously important tenth century.