Authenticity and connoisseurship

From masterpieces to schools

 'The Riverbank' debate is recorded in
Issues of Authenticity in Chinese Painting
Judith G. SMITH and Wen C. FONG, eds.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999

There is no strict definition for a 'masterpiece' but generally it is applied where a painting was made by a famous painter, is large in scale, deemed exceptionally rare and carries substantial financial value.

The effort to discover and present a masterpiece is a risky process. Consider the Metropolitan Museum's cautionary experience with 'The Riverbank', a large-scale ink on silk painting said to have been made by the pivotal early Chinese painter DONG Yuan 董源 (c. 934-c. 962)

'The Riverbank' was purchased by Oscar L. TANG for donation to the museum from the important collector CC WANG 王己千 (1907-2003) whose personal collection has long been reputed as the one of the most exceptional still in private hands. 'The Riverbank' is monumental in scale and was displayed prominently in the Asian Art galleries when they re-opened after renovation in 1997. The New York Times quoted Wang as saying "This is the very best painting, like the Mona Lisa." Curators made further comparisons to Giotto and Leonardo, while they quoted Richard M. Barnhart, a Yale professor of art history, as saying 'Its importance to the history of Chinese landscape painting can scarcely be overstated.' The Metropolitan curator Wen FONG endeavoured to associate it with published descriptions of otherwise lost work by Dong Yuan. Some colleagues in the field felt that the Met pushed the case too far.

The painting soon became the target of doubts raised by outside art historians, aired publicly in a symposium the Metropolitan held in 1999. The controversy was reported in the general press and the museum was put on the defensive. While 'The Riverbank' was loaned to the Taipei Palace Museum for their important survey of Northern Song painting (2007), now it does not figure in the highlights from the Met's collection on the museum's website and was not included in painting curator Maxwell K Hearn's delightful recent publication that draws on the collection, How to Read Chinese Paintings (2008). Generally it is not finding acceptance in the canon as a masterpiece by DONG Yuan - though many find it an interesting ancient painting.

(A photo of the painting can be seen in the archive of a special exhibition 'Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C. C. Wang Family Collection' (held 1999-2000) on the Metropolitan's website: )