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
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
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.
• Using latitude and longitude
• Describe the physical features, plants and animals of these areas
• Locate regions of the United States
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?
• Locate China on a map or globe. Identify latitude and longitude; compare with local latitude and longitude.
• Compare and contrast geography, plants, animals, and climate in the painting with the local region.
• Discuss ways people and animals have changed the geography, plants animals, and climate of the region depicted in the work of art. Using geographical features in the art, list other possible regions of America in which it could be located.
• In groups, read the information in “Connecting to the Work of Art” and research how this local region has changed over time. Write brief reports contrasting the ecology of the region in the past and the present.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, or political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.
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.