As falling leaves descend
with the wind,
I return by the water
through a thinning mist;
I see a tiny hut clinging
to the bank of a green stream,
How soft and fat the white
clouds look in the cold air.
The phrase from which Shitao develops his first line is luo ye gui gen, "fallen leaves returning to the tree root," expressing a person's yearning to return home in his old age. The painter perhaps also feels that his life is like can yan, in line 2, literally "shredded" or "worn-out" mist. (This album was painted late in 1695, when Shitao was on his way back to Yangzhou from a visit to Hunan and Anhui provinces.)
The quality that Shitao wanted to capture in this painting is fei, the "fat" of bai yun fei (literally, "white clouds look fat") in line 4 of the poem. Here he appears to reflect the ideas of Gong Xian (ca. 1618–1689): "In painting a clouded mountain, the cloud must appear thick [hou].. For thirty years I failed to achieve this until I met a master who told me, "If the mountain is thick, the cloud will look thick … This is the painting of no-painting." Shitao's misty and wonderfully translucent landscape is composed of two types of brushstrokes: those forming the pine needles, and the softly rubbed texture strokes forming the mountain. The "fat" white clouds are merely blank spaces: the illusion of "fatness" is created by the misty forms around them. Shitao has transformed this earlier "blank-outline" technique into layers of softly rubbed, transparent brushstrokes. The deep and "fat" quality of the painting results from a subtle intermixing of brushwork and inkwash: different shades of dark and light strokes and textures, solid and void areas interpenetrate one another.
The calligraphy, rendered in Zhong You's (151–230) "regular" script, is also smooth and "fat." The round and three-dimensional individual strokes seem to move and twist gently in space, like the falling leaves of the poem. The mood is serenely reflective.
Shitao probably cut his own seals. The poem is signed "Shitao" ("Stone Wave") and is followed by a square intaglio seal, Shi Yuanji yin ("[disciple of] Shakyamuni Yuanji's seal"). The small rectangular intaglio seals on the painting read Shitao and Yuanji.Qing dynasty (1644–1911), ca. 1695
Shitao (Zhu Ruoji) (Chinese, 1642–1707)Shitao (Zhu Ruoji): Returning Home (1976.280) | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art