Rufus Jiaan Chen

Fig 1. "Yueyang Tower", Lanscapes, Flowers, and Bamboo. Album of 12 leaves, ink on paper, each leaf 25x17.6cm,  Guangdong Provincial Museum.

Figure 1. Shitao, Yueyang Tower from Landscapes, Flowers, and Bamboo. Album of 12 leaves, ink on paper, each leaf 25×17.6 cm, Guangdong Provincial Museum.

Style is the distinctive physical appearance or visual character of a work, which results from choices made by the artist or designer. Style differs from iconography, as it has, according to Susan Sontag, the “advantage of apparently not being concerned with the content or subject of a work of art.”1 Analyzing style involves the grouping of similar objects through close visual analysis in order to define their visual differences from other objects.2 Styles may change collectively under social, political and economic influences, or they may shift within the development of a single artist.

“Style art history” approaches history as a series of distinct categories: movements, periods, or schools. This methodology constructs a narrative that defines the origin of a certain style and its subsequent historical development (usually categorized as early, late, or mature).3 This allows art historians to create chronologies based on visual likeness and influence.  This focus on formal, over social and political, phenomena means that style art history can be a limiting approach to the study of art.

The Qing (1644-1912) Chinese painter Shitao (1642-1707) had multiple, distinct styles during his artistic career. Shitao’s early occupation as a monk, and his extensive travel to various regions of China are key factors that help explain the complex development of his style and the shifts within it. Shitao’s stylistic changes stemmed from his constant desire to challenge canonical literati paintings (literati style is also known as the Southern School; it refers to artists who sought to reveal thoughts and emotions rather than demonstrating professional skills). In doing so, Shitao became known as an outlandish eccentric whose aesthetic was so distinct that it evolved into its own school, attracting dedicated followers now known as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou.4 However, the high demand for and popularity of literati paintings during the 1690s in Southern China prevented Shitao from continuing with this eccentric style. In order to appease his patrons and maintain steady commissions, Shitao opted to paint in a more conventional literati style. Additionally, his exploration of new painting techniques might have been compromised due to the psychological and physical turbulence he experienced later in life.5

In the early Qing period, the Northern School and the Southern School were two major styles within the genre of Chinese ink painting. When Shitao was a teenager, he lived as a monk and practiced his skills as a painter. He was heavily influenced by the celebrated painter Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who was then considered to be a master of literati paintings. Later in the 1690s, Shitao claimed that he himself was “the only man after Dong Qichang.”6 In one of his earliest works, Yueyang Tower [Figure 1]– one of the most iconic subjects for literati painters – Shitao makes Yueyang Tower (built AD 220) the focal point of his composition, where it rests at the base of the looming Baqiu mountain. Rigid contour lines construct the major subject matter such as the tower at the center, the bamboo on the ground, and the mountain in the background. Shitao’s attempts to foreshorten different sections of the image gives the viewer a sense of distance without the use of linear perspective. Moreover, the neat, clear lines of the painting suggest stylistic inspiration from woodblock illustrations.7 A poem that describes and compliments the scene is written in calligraphy at the bottom of the image, along with Shitao’s seal signatures.

Mount Huang , hanging scroll, 1667. Ink and color on paper. Dimensions and whereabouts unknown.

Figure 2. Shitao, Mount Huang, hanging scroll, 1667. Ink and color on paper. Dimensions and whereabouts unknown.

Even though Yueyang Tower has been identified as belonging to the literati style, Shitao himself never identified as a literati painter or as a promoter of the literati school. In 1686, Shitao added an inscription to another painting, Mount Huang (1667) [Figure 2]: “…did I learn from the Northern or Southern lineage, or should they learn from me? Holding my belly laughing I would reply: I use my own fa [我自用我法].”8 Jonathan Hay explains the significance of fa in Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China:

fa—the central term in Shitao’s thinking on pictorial craft, which I have translated following its normal art-critical usage as “method”—provided earlier with this “gate of fa” seal, fa was also a central term of Chan discourse as the Buddhist dharma, every reference Shitao made to “method” in painting inscription was doubled by another level of Chan meaning.9

In expressing his fa in Mount Huang, Shitao blends the traditional simplicity of Yueyang Tower, which uses Southern School techniques, with chaotic components and multi-angled perspectives influenced by the Northern School style to create his own unique aesthetic. Shitao also demonstrates his advanced painting techniques by mimicking the textures of rocks and the distance between different subjects, which contradicts the simplified depiction of Yueyang Tower. The intense composition of Mount Huang fills the scroll with rocks and hills of various sizes and dramatically places an elder at the center, which helps create a sense of depth and recession in the composition. Shitao painted the mountains in the foreground with clean lines made from seemingly effortless brush strokes. The expressive strokes in the background contrast with the precise lines that dominate the picture while emphasizing color gradation, suggesting a distant and alluring haze. The haphazard arrangement of the rocks—which the artist depicts from various angles on one flat surface—recalls the typical method of atmospheric perspective used in literati landscape.10 In sum, this could be described as a hybrid style; Shitao appropriated the Northern School’s attention to compositional devices to achieve the illusion of recession while still adhering to the Southern School’s more intimate approach to landscape bathed in clouds and mist.11

Tracing the visual shifts of Shitao’s work in this way is an example of style art history. Shitao’s pursuit of difference, his “multiplication of selves,” ultimately resulted in a unique, progressive style that made him a point of reference for the next generation of artists, called qishi, (known today as Eccentrics).12 By distinguishing the formal elements and differing methods between Shitao’s early and late works, art historians are able to establish a chronology of his life and paintings as well as hypothesize Shitao’s influences on his contemporaries and followers.  This can be only done, however, by paying close attention to the artist’s style.


  1. Susan Sontag, “On Style,” in Against Interpretation, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1966), 17.
  2. Jas Elsner, “Style,” in Critical Terms for Art History, eds. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 102.
  3. Ibid., 105.
  4. Jonathan Hay, Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 204.
  5. Richard Vinograd, “Origins and Presences: Notes on the Psychology and Sociality of Shitao’s Dreams,” Ars Orientalis 25 (1995): 66.
  6. Hay, 184.
  7. Ibid., 203.
  8. Ibid., 250.
  9. Ibid.
  10. William Watson, Style in the Arts of China (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 85.
  11. Ibid., 86.
  12. Hay, 204