Ma Yüan (active ca. 1190-ca. 1229) was a Chinese painter. With Hsia Kuei, he was one of the creators of the Ma-Hsia school of landscape painting and one of the great masters of the Southern Sung period.
Ma Yüan, also called Ch'in-shan, was born around the middle of the 12th century in Ch'ien-t'ang (modern Hangzhou), Chekiang Province. He represented the fourth generation in a tradition of painters spanning five generations, beginning with his great-grandfather, Ma Fen, and ending with his son, Ma Lin, all of whom served the Sung emperors as court painters-in-attendance. The family seat was in Ho-chung, Shansi Province, but the occupation of North China in 1126 by the Chin Tatars forced the family, and the government, to flee to the south.
Although the family tradition doubtless had strong influence on Ma Yüan's development as a painter, he was also indebted to the great northern landscape and figure master Li T'ang (died after 1130), whose style bridged the transition from the monumental art of Northern Sung to the more intimate, lyrical taste of Southern Sung.
Ma Yüan's art at its best is a masterpiece of understatement and evocative suggestion. His typical compositions, featuring the extensive use of swirling mist and empty spaces, with only a few sharply etched forms dramatically silhouetted against the whiteness, lent him the nickname "One-corner Ma." One of his finest works, however, the Landscape in Rain, in the lwasaki Collection, is a monumental vision of wind-and-rain-swept mountains and towering pines, recalling the heroic vision of the 10th and 11th centuries.
The style that has made such a favorable impression on Ma Yüan's admirers in Japan and the West is better suggested in the small fan painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, representing two willow trees rising against the faint shadow of distant mountains. The time is early spring, and the first stirring of life rustles in the dry branches. Mood is all-important, the poetry of an instant captured in a few brush strokes. Often crystallizing the lyrical essence of such paintings are a few well-chosen words, or a poetic couplet written on the work by an imperial patron.
One small hanging scroll in the Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, comes near to achieving a monumental vision in this same lyrical mode. It represents a few egrets hurdled in the frozen snow of a mountain pass, above them the crackling branches of a gnarled pine and the icy infinity of the sky. To convey so much with such sparing means—black ink on plain silk—is an artistic achievement of the first rank and places Ma Yüan among the leading artists of the Sung period.
The Ma-Hsia style was sometimes dismissed by later critics as consisting of "leftover mountains and broken trees," largely because of the weakness of the dynasty itself, which lost China to the Mongols. Nonetheless, the style was vigorously revived in the late 14th century under the early Ming emperors, as a symbol of the restored Chinese Empire, and had a formative influence on Japanese professional painters.
Ma Yüan is extensively discussed in Oswald Siren, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles, vol. 1 (1956). The art of the Southern Sung period as a whole is treated by James Cahill, The Art of Southern Sung China (1962).