The Chinese painter Ni Tsan (1301-1374) was one of the "Four Great Masters" of the Yüan dynasty. He was famous for his poetry and calligraphy and, above all, for his cool, serene landscapes painted in monochrome ink.
Ni Tsan was born in Wu-hsi in Kiangsu Province, the birthplace of many scholarly painters. His family were wealthy merchants, and Ni Tsan never embarked on an official career. Instead, he devoted himself to literature and scholarship, poetry and art. He was an ardent collector and connoisseur, with a passion for cleanliness.
In the middle of the 14th century the alien Yüan (Mongol) government was beginning to lose control over China and resorting to crippling taxation, which fell most heavily on the landed gentry of the Chekiang-Kiangsu region. About 1350, to escape the rapacious tax collectors and the deepening social chaos, Ni Tsan gave his fortune away to his relatives and left home. For the next 20 years he drifted in a houseboat among the lakes, rivers, and canals of Kiangsu, lodging sometimes in temples, while he continued to enjoy the pleasures of painting and connoisseurship. He led a simple life and dressed as a Taoist monk, refusing to sell his paintings but giving them away to anyone who appreciated them.
While Ni Tsan found some inspiration in the masters of the 10th century, such as Li Ch'eng and Tung Yüan, he so transformed their styles as to create landscapes unique in the history of Chinese painting. Again and again he used variations of the same simple composition, in which a group of trees and perhaps an empty hut stand on a rocky spur in the foreground, separated from distant hills by a clear expanse of water. Ni Tsan often wrote a poem or long inscription on the upper part of the picture, thus forming a subtle union of painting and calligraphy. He painted in monochrome ink on paper, very seldom adding any color, and using ink, as his contemporaries said, as sparingly as if it were gold. His brush-work is dry, sensitive, and bland. With these simple means he painted landscapes which captured the inner spirit rather than the outward appearance of nature.
Among Ni Tsan's finest landscapes are Jung-hsi Studio and Mountain Scenery with River Lodge (both 1372). He also painted rocks and bamboo with the same delicate touch. A typical example is Bamboo, Rock and Tall Tree (ca. 1348), painted shortly before Ni Tsan left his home in Wuhsi.
Many later exponents of the literati painting (wen-jen hua) imitated Ni Tsan's deceptively simple composition and technique, but none ever captured the feeling of his landscapes, for, as the 17th-century artist Tao-chi put it, "Their air of supreme refinement and purity is so cold that it overawes men."
With the founding of the Ming dynasty in 1368, China was at last at peace, and Ni Tsan returned to his old home, where he died 6 years later.
Further Reading on Ni Tsan
There is no full-length study of Ni Tsan in any Western language, but some information about his life and work is found in Osvald Sirén, Chinese Painting (7 vols., 1956-1958). A more general treatment of the art of the Yüan period, which gives a good picture of the conditions under which painters such as Ni Tsan lived and worked, is Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam Ho, Chinese Art under the Mongols: The Yüan Dynasty, 1279-1368 (1968).