IT’S long been a common practice for traditional Chinese painters to copy (linmo) or free copy (fang) works of earlier masters as part of their apprenticeship. But this tradition of copying older styles could, at times, consume a substantial portion of an artist’s creative life, according to James Elkins, an American art historian and critic.

This was particularly true with Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715), one of the greatest Orthodox master painters of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

For instance, of the 53 paintings by Wang listed in his art theory book “Lutai Tihua Gao,” or “Wang Yuanqi’s Inscriptions on Paintings,” 51 are said to be imitations of paintings by masters in earlier dynasties. Today, most of Wang’s extant artworks are also clearly indicated as imitations.

So how could a painter who spent most of his time copying earlier works became known as a “most innovative” master painter himself? Some art critics have pointed out that this is because Wang didn’t slavishly copy compositional elements and other superficial aspects of early masters’ paintings. Instead he engaged in “creative imitation,” in which he used ancient masterworks as inspiration for a new style of painting.

As Wang once said: “If it is said that I resemble the ancients, I dare not believe it; nor do I dare believe that I don’t.”

Wang was born into a scholar’s family in Taicang, in east China’s Jiangsu Province. He received a classical Confucian education during his childhood and was also tutored in painting by his grandfather Wang Shimin (1592–1680), a famous painter who was influential in the art world of his time.

At the age of 28, Wang received the civil service degree of Jinshi, or Presented Scholar, after passing the highest imperial examination and then served in a number of posts as a scholar-official before he became the Assistant Minister of Revenue in the imperial court.

Meanwhile, he also became known as a top representative of the country’s literati painters and was later named personal artistic adviser to Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722).

In 1705, the emperor appointed Wang as chief editor of Peiwen Zhai Shuhua Pu, an imperial encyclopedia of calligraphy and paintings — as well as the first work of its kind in China’s art history. As a result, Wang played an instrumental role in establishing the Orthodox landscape painting style in the early Qing Dynasty.

Original imitation

Wang was exposed to numerous theoretical concepts developed by his grandfather’s teacher, Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who was described as an “irresistible parallel with Picasso and Braque” by Elkins. Wang even claimed himself to be the artistic heir of Dong, a leading explorer of the principles of abstraction during the later years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

However, it was the style of Huang Gongwang (1268-1354) to which Wang truly devoted himself. Wang once said that he spent more than 50 years studying the paintings of Huang, a highly-acclaimed painter of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) who painted “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” a work widely considered the epitome of traditional Chinese landscape painting and one of the universally acknowledged masterpieces in traditional Chinese painting.

It’s little wonder that of all Wang’s paintings done in imitation of ancient masters, nearly half are imitations of Huang, including a few following the style of the master’s best known work.

Among Wang’s paintings modeled on Huang’s is one created in 1693 and now referred to as “Wang Yuanqi’s Fuchun Mountains After the Style of Huang Gongwang.” This work can very well represent Wang’s paradoxical approach to his imitation paintings.

First of all, unlike Huang’s original “Fuchun Mountings” painting, which is a long horizontal handscroll, Wang’s “copy” is a vertical 98.8 x 60.1 cm, ink on paper handing scroll, thus creating an original and dramatic composition.

Taking inspiration from Huang’s work, Wang demonstrates in his painting his own superb landscape painting techniques. His brushwork is both dynamic and spontaneous and his application of subtle tonal and fluttering textual strokes is both elegant and exiting.

Following both Huang and Dong, Wang also pursued an intentionally naive style in his painting. The apparent childlike awkwardness that belies a highly sophisticated hand has long been regarded by Chinese scholars as an essential quality of literati paintings.

Wang’s existing paintings are scattered all around the world today. His 1693 handing scroll modeling on Huang’s Fuchun Mountings is now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

The Fuchun Mountains

Artist: Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715)

Year: Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Type: Ink on paper

Dimensions: 60.1cm×98.8 cm

Location: Palace Museum in Beijing