Chinese (Ming Dynasty, Unknown Painter) – The Earthly Paradise

In this period Chinese painting began to lose the austere simplicity and force of the Sung Dynasty, and to begin its long descent into loose over-decoration and literal detail. Here this tendency has not yet gone unpleasantly far. The composition is full of small details, diffusely scattered, with no tightly knit pattern. But the effect is not one of con-fusion: rather of delicate, free-floating, gossamer lightness.

This unifying spirit is conveyed in the swaying, willowy out-lines of the ladies; in the intricate, fine-spun swirls of their drapery; in the sinuous, long-necked cranes; in the falling flower-petals, the gently rippling waves, and in the wandering, cloudy shapes of trees and hills. The mood expressed in faces and attitudes is, consistently, one of gay, thoughtless pleasure, tea-drinking, boating and gathering flowers. Between the figures and their background there is a contrast in light and color so great as to prevent any near approach to realistic space or atmosphere. The former stand out in isolation as flat, ornate little patterns of intricate line and bright varied color. The landscape is in quite another key, of dull gray-greens in carefully varied shades. But the same flow of line links both together, and the dark smudges of the trees provide a good decorative counterfoil to the bright little figures. There is a much more pronounced illusion of deep space than in the nearby T’ang paintings by Ku K’ai Chih. But all spatial intervals, and the relative sizes of things, are vague and unrealistic. With no attempt at anything more substantial, the picture achieves a distinctive, harmonious charm, not unlike that of Fragonard’s The Swing.