Wild Geese Descending on a Sandbank, 1730
Bian Shoumin, Chinese, 1683–1752
Hanging scroll; ink and color on paper
Image: 52 × 27 5/8 in. (132.1 × 70.2 cm) Mount: 101 × 34 in. (256.5 × 86.4 cm) Overall (with roller): 101 × 37 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (256.5 × 95.3 × 3.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund
Habits of Mind
- OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Compare and contrast works of art to find similarities and influences.
• Learn about local painters.
• Write letters to artists using appropriate formats.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Four geese in a misty landscape form the subject of this elegant painting. One goose flies in from the upper right, a second perches in the reeds, and two other birds are on a sandbank. In Chinese art, the subject of geese evokes the season of autumn. The inscription on the left, which reveals Bian Shoumin’s inspiration for this work, is carefully written in Chinese calligraphy.
Five days past the time of White Dew in the year 1730 of the Yongzheng reign-era, while lodging in Yangzhou I heard Cao Qiupu play the song “Geese Descending on the Sandbank.” My inspiration rising, I did this on the basis of the poem:
Just now wild geese came into the sky,
as I waved my brush before the master of the qin;
Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts
as I stand beside I know not who.
The artist’s observations of nature here have been reduced to shapes and lines ink. He used subtly contrasting shades of grays to define the bodies of the plump geese. Soft horizontal bands of ink, suggest the grass growing on the sandbanks. Two geese and the reeds fill the lower part of the scroll, with one flying bird forming a diagonal at the right, balanced by the inscription on the left.
Bian Shoumin earned his living as a professional painter. He often visited the city of Yangzhou, where he sold his works, and he soon became associated with a group of artists called “The Eight Yangzhou Eccentrics,” who shared a love of calligraphy and an innovative painting style. Bian Shoumin dedicated himself to painting wild geese. He built a home along their migration route and produced paintings that capture the beauty of these birds in flight and nesting along the river banks.
The art of Chinese scroll painting dates back over 4,000 years. Throughout history, the Chinese have regarded calligraphy, and eventually painting as the highest forms of art. Many of the great Chinese painters, like Bian Shoumin, began as talented calligraphers. Scrolls, in either a long vertical format or horizontal format, are often intended to be unrolled slowly, revealing a story, as if the viewer was reading a book. This hanging scroll painting, mounted on silk and measuring over eight feet long, is meant to be viewed all at once.
Describe the different parts of this artwork. How is this painting displayed?
A hanging painting that can be unrolled is called a scroll. The art of Chinese scroll painting dates back over 4,000 years.
Describe what you see in the painting.
The artist used subtly contrasting shades of grays to define the bodies of the birds and soft horizontal bands of ink suggest the grass growing on the sandbanks. One bird is flying diagonally in the sky. What do you think about the composition? Is it balanced? How? Is it static or dynamic?
The artist’s style is naturalistic, and he uses strokes of varying tones to form the birds. How does the artist create depth and perspective? What type of brushstrokes did the artist use?
How would the work be different if more color had been used?
The text in the left corner is called calligraphy, and this was very popular at the time. Do you think the text forms part of the composition or is it separate?
What effect does the calligraphy have on the work?
What is the definition of landscape painting? Do you think this is a landscape painting?
Landscape painting reflects a scene more than a narrative, and is often bound to time and place. What is the scene? What time of the year and what time of day is it?
In Chinese art, the subject of migrating geese evokes the season of autumn. Think of the painting as representing an ecosystem: can you name and describe the plant and animal life?
There are four geese, reeds, and a sandbank. Why do you think the artist left some areas blank?
What might the weather have been? The areas of unpainted paper suggest a fog. What does that say about the mood of this work?
The artist had a profound admiration for nature and built his home near a lake so that he could closely observe the beauty of bird life and nature around him. Discuss whether a landscape should be realistic. Do you think landscape artists should paint from life?
The artist was part of a group of artists called “The Eight Yangzhou Eccentrics,” who shared a love of calligraphy and an innovative painting style. What do you think the calligraphy says?
The inscription in the upper left corner of the painting displays a poem: “Just now wild geese came into the sky; As I waved my brush before the master of the qin; Autumn sounds meld with autumn thoughts; As I stand beside I know not who”. Throughout history, the Chinese have regarded calligraphy, and eventually painting as the highest forms of art. What do you think about the use of text in artworks? Can you give other examples from your own time?
• Teach the proper format for writing letters in preparation for writing letters to artists.
• Have each student identify one of the three focus artists whose style influenced his or her landscape painting. Invent an address for the artist based on the painting (e.g., Neil Welliver, Duck Trap River, Lincolnville, ME), then write a letter to the artist explaining how his painting has influenced the student.
• As a class, learn about local painters. Write a letter inviting a local painter to speak to the class about his or her art.
Subject Matter Connection
A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres–such as fantasy or science fiction–ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. By analyzing Wild Geese Descending on a Sandbank, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.