Most general accounts of the history of Chinese painting tend to see the period through the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the late Song and Yuan dynasties, as a time of great innovation and development. Painting of the subsequent Ming and Qing dynasties, by contrast, has been misleadingly stigmatized as repetitive, an art of a period of decline based solely on variations on earlier themes.  This great misunderstanding results in part from an implicit expectation that painting will follow a unilinear development that can be traced, as it has been in pre-nineteenth-century European painting, through successive advances in representational techniques and pervasive stylistic shifts. Seen this way, the later centuries of Chinese painting might indeed appear simply to repeat earlier styles and formulas. But if, in line with more recent thinking about originality in art, we consider creative and even radical manipulations of old forms and conventions within the bounds of innovation, the problem of originality disappears. The latter part of this section of the exhibition seeks to demonstrate some of the creative transformations that were initiated by a succession of highly original, even brilliant, Ming and Qing masters.

Chinese painting to the end of the Song dynasty in the late thirteenth century can be broadly characterized as a progress toward collective mastery of representational techniques, toward making pictures in which solid form and intangible space were equally "true to life." Once this goal had been attained, as far as the Chinese were ever to pursue it, artistic creativity was diverted to other matters: experiments with nondescriptive brushwork and near-abstract form, and with styles and subjects that could be read as self-expressive, as embodying the thoughts, feelings, and character of the artist. The Song-Yuan transition was thus an important turning point in the history of Chinese painting, manifesting the very shift from painting as description of appearances to painting as expressive vehicle that is taken in the West to define the beginning of Modernism. This transition happens, however, half a millennium earlier in China.