Figure painting, neglected since the Song dynasty, became prominent again in the late Ming, especially in the work of Chen Hongshou. This handscroll was a collaboration between Chen, his studio assistant Yan Zhan, and a portrait specialist named Li Wansheng. Li painted the face of the old gentleman He Tianzhang, using the new illusionism derived from acquaintance with European pictures. Three levels of reality and artifice are clearly distinguished in this portrait. He Tianzhang, seated at a stone table and surrounded by the accoutrements of a scholar, is a "real person" looking complacently out at us; the diminutive flute player at the end of the scroll is, on the other hand, a conventional image from the past, without substance. He Tianzhang's wife or concubine, seated between them on a banana leaf and holding a fan, occupies a mediating position in the mode of representation-she is given some weight and prominence, but is reduced to a type of beauty, presented more as a lovely possession than as an individual. Such refinements of style and subtle plays on representation bespeak both a highly sophisticated audience and an art that has become almost incapable of straightforward imagery.
  In reaction to the inertia that he felt had beset the painting of his own time, Dong Qichang strove to reinvigorate the endlessly conventionalized idioms through an emphasis on calligraphy and through a critical examination of past styles. Like Chen Hongshou, whose work is reproduced above, he assumed that a learned audience could recognize the various allusions in his work, as seen in Poetic Feeling at Qixia Monastery. On one level this painting is quasi-topographical, representing a popular Buddhist monastery near Nanjing. On another level it is at once a demonstration of the brushwork and compositional principles that Dong advocated in his theoretical writings; a stark, diagrammatic exposition of his knowledge of old paintings, in this case the monumental mountainscapes of the tenth to eleventh centuries; and a nearly abstract construction within which dynamic forms interact dramatically. The consciously subversive distortion of the old monumental landscape can be interpreted as a visual reference to the instability and disorder of the late Ming period.