We have already seen many paintings by painters of the Song court, including Guo Xi's Early Spring, Zhang Zeduan's The Spring Festival Along the River, Wang Juzheng's The Spinning Wheel, Gu Hongzhong's The Night Revels of Minister Han Xizai , Li Song's Knickknack Peddlar, as well as several paintings of women and children by unknown court artists. The excellence of the draftsmanship of these paintings, and the meticulous attention they give to naturalistic rendering, are evidence enough of the high standards of Song court art.
Before the Song dynasty, painters at court were skilled artisans whose talents were called upon to complete the decorative schemes of palaces, much the way painters helped decorate aristocratic homes and temples. During the Northern Song, and especially during the reign of Huizong (r. 1100-1125), the standing of court painters was raised and the court painting academy became an educational institution; court painters were ranked, tested, and rewarded in imitation of the way civil service officials were.
Courtly styles throughout the Song and Yuan period were characterized by technical finesse and close observation. Court artists spent part of their time copying old masterpieces, a practice that served the practical purposes of preserving compositions but also helped maintain high technical standards.
The fan painting below of an imaginary palace is an example of the sort of fine-line, highly detailed and exacting painting court artists could make.
Why depict something as complex as a multi-story palace building on a small fan?
Xia Yong (Yuan), Hilltop Pavilion Facing the Sun
During the years of Mongol rule in the Yuan dynasty, court sponsorship of painting continued, but at nowhere near the levels of the previous dynasty. The Mongol rulers did continue the tradition of official imperial portraits, however. Except for their Mongolian clothing style, the portraits below of Khubilai Khan and his empress-consort Chabi follow the same conventions of pose and idealized likeness as their Han Chinese counterparts of the Song dynasty.
Here we will look more closely at two further dimensions of court art, the tradition of court bird and flower painting, and the production of narrative paintings that served the political purposes of the court.