Tang Dynasty Art History - Ancient China
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Tang Dynasty Art

tang sculpture
Musee Guimet, Paris

May 2016 - Sculpture, which had really begun to develop during the Sui Dynasty, reached its height under the T'ang Dynasty. Sculptors emphasized graceful lines and sharp, clear forms, and good proportions (the head the right size for the body, the legs and arms the right length).

tang sculpture
Musee Guimet, Paris
yongtai tang wall-painting
Wall-painting from the tomb of Princess Yongtai,
showing palace servants, ca. 706 AD

But Chinese painters kept right up with the sculptors. Instead of painting mainly pictures of the Buddha, now artists painted scenes from history (famous emperors and famous battles), and scenes of everyday life at the emperor's court. They tried to make people look real and solid.

tang painting copy
T'ang Emperor Taizong, in a later copy
of a T'ang painting by Yen Li-pen
(Beijing Palace Museum)
dunhuang mural
Landscape mural from the Dunhuang Caves

Nature was a more and more important theme to these painters. In the 700s AD, the painter Han Kan was famous for his paintings of horses, for instance, and many other artists also chose to paint animals.

five oxen tang painting
Five Oxen, said to be by
the T'ang artist Han Huang (Beijing Palace Museum)

Other artists were more interested in landscape painting. In Chinese this is called shanshui (mountain-water) painting. They used brushes and bright green and blue paint to show high rocky mountains and cliffs, with rivers, rocks, and trees. These artists were not interested in showing what nature really looked like, like a photograph. Instead, they were trying to convey the spirit of that place - what it felt like to be there. Usually they did not put in all the details, just enough to give you the appropriate feeling. In fact, they thought it was better art if it could give you the same feeling with fewer lines.

Many famous artists lived during the T'ang Dynasty - Yen Li-pen, Wu Tao-tzu, Wang Wei, and Tung Yuan for instance - but none of their paintings survived. We do have some later copies of their paintings (see the one by Yen Li-pen on this page?).

Here's a video of women dancing in Tang Dynasty style (compare their long sleeves with the figurines above):

Learn by doing: paint your own landscape
Tang Dynasty pottery (the first porcelain)

Bibliography and further reading about Tang Dynasty art:

The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, by Jessica Rawson and others (1996). Rawson is a curator at the British Museum, and she uses the collection of the British Museum to illustrate this book. Library Journal calls it "easily the best introductory overview of Chinese art to appear in years".

Art in China (Oxford History of Art Series), by Craig Clunas (1997). Not specifically , but a good introduction to the spirit of Chinese art. Warning: this one is not arranged in chronological order. Instead, it has chapters on sculpture, calligraphy, and so on.

Arts of the Tang Court, by Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky (1996). A brief introduction.

Tang Dynasty pottery
Song Dynasty art
More on China in the T'ang Dynasty
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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