Dong Qichang (董其昌, 1555–1636), courtesy name Xuanzai (玄宰), was a Chinese painter, scholar, calligrapher, and art theorist of the later period of the Ming dynasty. Dong Qichang was born to a poor but scholarly family. He passed the jinshi (“presented scholar”) examination at the age of thirty-five and was appointed to the first of a series of official positions within the Ming government.
Dong Qichang’s own calligraphy followed the style of the eminent calligraphers Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫) and Wen Zhengming (文徵明) and, ultimately, of masters of the Jin and Tang dynasties. Like the former two artists, his creative approach was conscientious, disciplined, scholarly, and systematic, seeking out the spirit rather than slavishly reproducing the outward appearance of his models.
In his paintings, Dong Qichang tended towards the styles of Dong Yuan (董源) and Juran (巨然), two 10th-century painters who specialized in painting the soft rolling landscapes of the south. He also favored the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty (Huang Gongwang 黃公望, Wu Zhen 吳鎮, Ni Zan 倪瓚, and Wang Meng 王蒙), who had both the selfless personality and the personal style indicative of the artist-scholar’s highest ideal. His paintings reveal his debt to them in both style and motif, yet he went considerably beyond them in banishing all immediate beauty from his art and stressing instead stark forms, seemingly anomalous spatial renderings, and clumsy handling of ink and brush. In general, Dong Qichang’s landscapes are marked by the subtle elegance found in scholar art. His mature yet breezy form of brushwork is built up yet also retains a light and airy feeling. In creating compositions, he followed the idea in calligraphy of an overriding “force” that permeates the work.
Dong Qichang was also the leading art theorist of his day, developing the notion that Chinese painting could be divided into two approaches – the “northern” one of gradually painting with fine lines and colors as well as a “southern” one of working more quickly with calligraphic strokes. This theory came to dominate Chinese art history for more than 200 years. Dong Qichang’s writings appear on his art itself as well as in various compilations of his writings—including the anthologies Huayen (畫眼, The Eye of Painting), Huazhi (畫旨, The Meaning of Painting), and Huachanshi Suibi (畫禪室隨筆, Notes from the Painting-Meditation Studio).