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Mountains and Rivers Without End

Perhaps by Lu Yuan (active late-17th century)
China, Qing dynasty, late 17th century
Handscroll; ink on paper
Purchase F1947.17
Freer Gallery of Art

A frontispiece precedes the painting and provides it with a title. The four large characters, translating from right to left as Mountains and Rivers Without End, are written in strong, balanced standard script and followed by a signature and two seals of the Ming dynasty artist Yao Shou (1423–1495). Modern research suggests the painting may date to the seventeenth century in the Qing dynasty, so it follows that either Yao Shou created the frontispiece for a different painting or the writing is a later forgery. Whichever the case, the calligraphy serves as a bold and visually appealing introduction to the scroll.

Rendered entirely in ink, the painting opens at right with a few scraggly trees and a simple thatch-roofed pavilion built on a rise above the river. Beyond the small bay, people appear at the doors and windows of a rustic settlement. A path leads off to the left, crossing streams and winding in and out of valleys. Over its sixteen-foot length, the composition alternates between mountains and rivers that fill the paper and recede in succession. Human activity and signs of human presence are everywhere. Robed scholar-gentlemen and their servants wander the trails or sit peacefully in walled estates. Cottages and hamlets nestle in mountain dells and stand among trees by the river. Fishing boats and ferries ply the open waters. Set in mid-autumn, the scene culminates at left with a majestic temple under high bluffs overlooking a low range of mist-shrouded peaks.

Human activity dots the landscape, but it often requires careful scrutiny to find the people. Look for:

  • Boat travelers arriving at a rustic ferry landing
  • A small boy sweeping the yard, with his dog running nearby
  • A robed scholar and his servant approaching a walled compound
  • Two men carrying loads of kindling and firewood
  • Three fishermen with long poles standing in small boats

At far left, the painting bears a signature, date (September-October 1377), and seal of the early Ming dynasty artist Xu Ben (1335–1403). When the Freer Gallery of Art acquired this handscroll in 1947, both Xu Ben's signature and all the other Ming dynasty elements—frontispiece, colophons, and collector seals—were accepted as genuine. According to museum records, in 1970 Thomas Lawton, a curator of Chinese art who later became the museum's director, observed: "The style of the handscroll does not conform to that usually seen in paintings safely attributed to Xu Ben. The few paintings by Lu Yuan, a Suzhou artist who was active ca. 1665–1694, are so closely related to the Freer handscroll as to necessitate a new attribution to him."

Recent research has also exposed the questionable or counterfeit nature of all the components of the scroll that supposedly date from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). These forged elements were probably added by an unscrupulous owner or dealer who wanted the painting to seem older than it actually is, either to enhance its prestige or to realize a higher profit when it was sold. Despite these deliberately misleading accretions, the painting itself remains a highly engaging and evocative depiction of the Chinese landscape.

Seven colophons follow the painting. Each bears the false signature and seals of a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century contemporary of Xu Ben or Yao Shou. Although the writing is forged, many of the texts are genuine poems from the fourteenth century and originally were composed for a painting by Yan Su (died 1140) that is now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. The forger undoubtedly selected these poems for inclusion on the current handscroll because he felt they complemented the landscape and agreed with its overall mood. To obscure his forgery, however, he cleverly signed the texts with the names of different fourteenth-century writers. Two of the poems, now reassigned to their proper authors, are translated here.

(first colophon from the right)
In the autumn hills, as leaves fall desolate and drear,
Our boat fares upon the river, the road we go lies far.
I remember yesterday when we'd passed Sand Market Spit:
At sunset an old rustic crossing the bridge at a creek.
    —Liu Ji (1311–1375)

(fourth colophon from the right)
Before Lute Pavilion, the river water's green as jade,
Across the river, layered peaks take on autumnal hues.
On my boat, I recall the past, drifting in the stream,
When I caught a glimpse of waterfalls and Censer Peak.
Now that I see this painting my eyes grow doubly bright,
But when I reminisce about the past my mind is troubled.
In the empty study, the seated guest is lost for words,
On rocky stairways, the traveler seems full of longing.
An ancient temple faintly emerges on the mountain spur,
Fishing skiffs in a vast expanse cross the misty water.
My poem done, I fondle the scroll, full of deep emotion,
For when shall I get back again to this mountain home?
    —Mu Rongli (14th century)

Translations by Stephen D. Allee