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明 唐寅 《夢僊草堂圖》 卷

The Thatched Hut of Dreaming of an Immortal


A broken mountainside slopes gently downward from the right. Near the bottom, a simple thatch-roofed hut perches on the brink of the cliff overlooking an abyss. Through a natural window formed by the surrounding rocks and an overhanging pine, we can see the hut; inside, a gentleman sleeps at his desk, cradling his head in his arms. At left, solid landforms give way to subtly modulated atmosphere and distant, hazy mountains, where a second figure hovers in midair, looking back to the sleeping man.


Tang Yin paid wonderful attention to fine detail, rendering the figures, the hut’s architecture, the pine needles, and varieties of leaves almost casually, yet with great naturalness. The masses of rock at right are muscular and sinuous, faintly touched with bands of blue and orange to reinforce the illusion of recession.


Setting the theme, the artist inscribed the following poem at upper left:

Comfy at his hidden desk, pillowed on books he dozes
In his dream he enters that other world inside a pot
Seeming to take the appearance of the Unseen Unheard
He can impart the true procedure of the Great Return

All the references in the poem relate to Daoist lore and practice: The man is a recluse who has fallen asleep while reading. By entering a pot or a gourd, a Daoist adept can escape the mundane world and hobnob with those who have found the way to immortality, such as the master Xiyi, whose name literally means “who or what cannot be seen and cannot be heard.” From such magical entities, the adept learns the arcane methods for preparing the elixir of immortality.


The artist signed his poem, “Jinchang Tang Yin drew this picture for Mister Dongyuan.” Other texts attached to the left end of the scroll (not shown) identify Mister Dongyuan as a man named Wang Deqing 汪德卿 who apparently hailed from Anhui province. As a youth, Wang had regularly dreamed of an immortal, who shared secret knowledge that Wang later offered to teach to others. Accordingly, he took the nickname (hao 號) Mengxian 夢仙 (Dreamer of Immortals).


Part of a genre that was popular in sixteenth-century Suzhou, this painting illustrates a man’s hao 號, a nickname or epithet that an individual adopted as a symbolic statement of personal identity. Hao often celebrate some quality or characteristic of the person—an ambition, an accomplishment, a life-altering event, or some combination of all three—and they generally incorporate meanings with moral or philosophical dimensions. An individual may also have used his hao as the name of his private studio, including both the building and its adjacent gardens. Accordingly, hao paintings often depict the subject in a humble structure and an environment that complements either the literal or the symbolic meaning of his nickname. Commonly, the gentleman subject of a hao painting appears as a recluse engaged in scholarly pursuits such reading, writing, painting, or playing the qin—in other words, as a private man of character and cultivation living in idyllic harmony with the universe.

Apparently, the subject often commissioned the hao painting himself. He would then solicit or commission literary and calligraphic contributions from gentleman friends and admired individuals. The result was a collective handscroll in which the subject played the central role, a costly and unique acquisition that he could proudly show off. Like most commissioned portraits, the hao painting at root was a vanity project that served as a medium of self-advertisement.


As a young man, Tang Yin studied with Shen Zhou, one of his fellow Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Shen had studied with the Suzhou master Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535) and fully incorporated Zhou’s style into his own. As many Wu School professionals, Zhou favored Song dynasty styles, especially that of the seminal landscape painter Li Tang (1050s–after 1130), whose technique Tang Yin employed to great effect in this painting.

Interesting Fact

Some scholars have questioned the authenticity of Tang Yin’s calligraphy, signature, and seal on the painting, suggesting that Zhou Chen may have painted the scroll. By closely studying the techniques and comparing this painting with other works by both Zhou and Tang, we have confirmed that this scroll is an original painting by Tang Yin working at the height of his powers.

明 唐寅 《夢僊草堂圖》 卷
The Thatched Hut of Dreaming of an Immortal

Tang Yin (1470–1524)
China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century
Handscroll; ink and color on paper
Purchase -- Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art F1939.60

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