Zhao Mengfu, a leading calligrapher of his time, set the course of scholar-painting by firmly establishing its two basic tenets: renewal through the study of ancient models and the application of calligraphic principles to painting. In Twin Pines, Level Distance the landscape idiom of the Northern Song masters Li Cheng (李成) and Guo Xi (郭熙) has become a calligraphic style. Rather than simply describe nature as it appears to be, Zhao sought to capture its quintessential rhythms. The characteristics of rocks and trees, felt by the artist and acted out through his calligraphic brushwork, are imbued with a heightened sense of life energy that goes beyond mere representation.
In a long colophon on the far left of the scroll, the artist expresses his views on painting: “Besides studying calligraphy, I have since my youth dabbled in painting. Landscape I have always found difficult. This is because ancient [landscape] masterpieces of the Tang, such as the works of Wang Wei (王維), the great and small Li [Li Sixun (李思訓) and Li Zhaodao (李昭道)] and Zheng Qian (鄭虔), no longer survive. As for the Five Dynasties masters Jing Hao (荊浩), Guan Tong (關仝), Dong Yuan (董源), and Fan Kuan (范寬), all of whom succeeded one another, their brushwork is totally different from that of the more recent painters. What I paint may not rank with the work of the ancient masters, but compared to recent paintings I daresay mine are quite different.”