Although the chronology
of the founders of the main schools of
Tibetan Buddhist painting is now established
a few examples of most schools can now
the stylistic classification of actual
paintings continues to vex historians
of Tibetan art. This conundrum was once
worse, so we can be grateful for whatever
progress has been made.3
Part of the problem may derive from the
oversimplified classification scheme we
have inherited from the Tibetan authorities,
according to which there are only three
main later schools: 1. sMan-ris, 2. mKhyen-ris,
and 3.sGar-bris, the second of which is
rare. Traditional authorities do subdivide
the two most important schools, distinguishing
an old from new sMan-ris, treating the
New sMan-ris of Chos-dbyings-rgya-mtsho
almost as a separate school. In the same
way, they sometimes differentiate between
old and new sGar-bris, the "new" referring
to styles Si-tu Pan-chen patronized in
eighteenth-century Khams. Yet even with
such additional refinements, one suspects
that the styles were more numerous and
their relations more complex.
One of the bravest recent attempts to
apply the traditional styles is Rhie and
Thurman's catalogue of the Rubin collection,
a book to which my sole contribution was
an independent chapter.4
Here I will try to clarify a few points
in that catalogue, while proposing some
further stylistic identifications. I offer
these remarks as a recent footnote to
the study of Tibetan painting styles that
E. Gene Smith pioneered thirty years ago
through his introduction to Kong-sprul's
The Main Tibetan Styles
The "Tibetan styles" (bod bris) that
took hold after the sMan-thang-pa revolution
in the mid-fifteenth century can be classified:
i. Modern Successors to the Old sMan-ris
in dBus: The E-bris
"Gelukpa International School"
ii. Successors to the old sMan-ris in
western gTsang (Shel-dkar, etc.)6
i. New sMan-ris of Tashilhunpo, forerunner
to the gTsang-ris
ii. New sMan-ris in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century
Khams: A Hybrid sMan-ris/sGar-bris
mKhyen-ris of mKhyen-brtse and Disciples
Revival of the mKhyen-ris by the Fifth
c. A mKhyen-ris
Branch Surviving at 'Bri-gung
sGar-bris, Si-tu's Influence
4. Regional Styles
(i.e., E-ris, 1.a.i. above)
(mainly 3.b. and 1.b.ii above)
bris (regional variant of 1.a.i?)
Dynasty Court Art (China)
These categories leave out the previous,
"pre-Tibetan" painting styles,
most of which could be classified under
the traditional categories of either
"East-[Indian] painting" (shar
bris) or "Newar painting"
(bal bris). An example of Tibetan "East-[Indian]
painting" would be the sTag-lung
paintings, such as catalogue no. 102
(Ru 319). It is wrong (cf. p. 315),
to assert that sTag-lung painted lineages
usually include Atisha, for often they
do not (Rhie and Thurman 1996, no. 203,
is not typical of the corpus). In addition,
if the main Phyag-chen lineage is shown
(as is usual), there is no need to qualify
the presence of Phag-mo-gru-pa with
a "perhaps." Phag-mo-gru-pa
was sTag-lung-thang-pa's main master
and was crucial to his tradition.
For later Tibetans, "Newar painting"
(bal bris) included not only paintings
by Newar artists or their early Tibetan
imitators, but also old-fashioned Tibetan
styles that resisted the inflow of Chinese
art and aesthetic taste even as late
as the sixteenth century. One assumes
the portrait of Virupa, no. 83 (Ru 641),
p. 280, is an example of true fourteenth-century
Bal-ris, but the identification of the
lay master above as bSod-nams-rtse-mo
is doubtful. He is more likely either
Sa-skya Pandita's guru rJe-btsun Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan
or his grandfather, Sa-chen.
Regarding the later period of true
Newar-style (Bal-ris) painting, Rhie
mentions, p. 55, "Jangpukpa Kunga
Lekpa" (Byang-phug-pa Kun-dga'-legs-pa)
as a guru of Tsongkhapa. (His name was
omitted from the index.) In fact, he
was a master who flourished in gTsang
in the first half of the fifteenth century.
The Bal-ris paintings he commissioned
thus probably did not belong to the
Figure 13 cited by Rhie on p. 54 (from
Liu I-se 1957, fig. 18) is unlikely
to have been Sa-skya Pandita. This iconography
with such hand gestures and hand-held
objects is not otherwise attested for
Sa-pan. One also wonders whether the
attribution (Rhie 1999, p. 55; Liu 1957,
figs. 22 and 24) of 'Bri-gung thangkas
to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth
century is not too early.
With the portraits "Sakya Lama,"
no. 86 [=Ngor abbot Sangs-rgyas-seng-ge
1504-1569, 11th abbot], and "Master
Buddhashri," no. 87 (Ru 269), p.
291f., we come to later Tibetan continuations
of the Bal-ris. Buddhashri is an important
Tibetan master who transmitted the Lam
'bras to Ngor-chen Kun-dga'-bzang-po
(1382-1456) in the early fifteenth century.
The Lha-mchog-seng-ge of the inscription
is the ninth Ngor abbot rGyal-ba Lha-mchog-seng-ge
(1468-1535, abbatial tenure 1516-1534)
with this distinctive name who commissioned
The main figure Buddhashri appears
probably in his role as lineage master
of the Sa-skya-pa (Ngor-pa) Lam 'bras
instructions. (He is shown wearing special
Tibetan monastic garb, so any speculation
about his being an Indian pundit is
iconographically impossible). Compare
his appearance in the Lam 'bras lineages
in no. 189 (Ru 352) p. 468f. The Indian
pandita named Buddhashri referred to
by Rhie and Thurman (p. 291) played
no known role in any later Tibetan school.8
The portrayal of three "Sakya
lamas," no. 90 (Ru 63), p. 296,
is also stylistically conservative for
the sixteenth century. Here the main
figure at top center identified as Se-ston
Kun-rig (a lay master) can only be his
ordained disciple Zhang-ston Chos-'bar,
who preceded Sa-chen in this Lam 'bras
lineage. It is anachronistic to call
the first two
masters "Sakya" lamas, though
their lineages, it is true, were later
mainly transmitted by Sa-chen and his
The portrayal of Great
Adept Avadhutipa, no. 44 (Ru 41), p.
219f., illustrates the penetration of
Chinese styles by the seventeenth or
eighteenth century in paintings of the
Sa-skya-pa school. Avadhutipa appears
here as a lineage master of the Lam
or "Ming-Court-Inspired Revolution"?
Bob Thurman in his introductory essay
(p. 31ff.) hypothesizes the existence
of a "Ganden Renaissance"
mass movement in Tibetan religious culture
from ca. 1400 to the 1640s.9
Such a "Ganden Renaissance"
is, to my knowledge, nowhere attested
in the corpus of accessible Tibetan
historical writings. Even if Western
historians or Tibetologists might have
overlooked it, how could something of
such scope and significance have escaped
the notice of the historically well-informed
scholars from Tibet?
Thurman's art-historian co-author,
M. Rhie, did not adopt the "Ganden
renaissance" as a period or descriptive
category in her own essays or descriptions,
perhaps because it is not a coherent
period or development. The period in
question overlaps two major art-historical
epochs, starting (ca. 1400) in the pre-sMan-thang-pa,
heavily Indian-influenced, styles (Bal-ris).
It includes the transitional styles
of the Gyantse stupa (1430s-1440s),
undergoes the sMan-thang-pa revolution
(from the 1450s or 1460s), and ends
in a Sinicized style of the later sMan-ris
(mid to late seventeenth century).
Thurman's thesis is that Tsong-kha-pa's
visions of Ganden (Tushita) heaven in
ca. 1400 triggered a massive religious
and artistic renaissance in Tibet during
the two and a half centuries that followed.
He proposes that a "mass movement"
took place that also embraced the other
main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, thus
denying that he is describing essentially
just the Gelukpa school's foundation
and its eventual winning of political
supremacy through a military imposition
of a theocracy in the 1640s. One wonders
what role the banning of the Gelukpa
monks from the Lhasa prayer festival
for the first two decades of the sixteenth
century or the driving of the Sera and
Drepung monks from their monasteries
in 1618 would have played in this "mass
movement," which ended only in
the 1640s when the strongest rival schools
were forcibly suppressed--through many
confiscations and forced conversions
of monasteries--and the main political
rivals were eliminated through Mongol-led
Thurman reconstructs in a visionary
or intuitive way, without citing historical
or art-historical evidence. His sole
Tibetan source is one later hagiography
of Tsong-kha-pa cited as "rGyal-dbang
Chos-rje" in the bibliography.
Thurman proposes a visionary mechanism
for artistic developments (p. 36): "...
their enlightenments naturally became
the basis for a widespread artistic
renaissance, as artists of liberated
creativity were moved to articulate
their visions to a wider world."
This is internally consistent with one
of the key identifying characteristics
he ascribes to the art: "presence
of visionary clarity."
The renaissance in the West gave rise
to neoclassical styles of art and architecture
through the rediscovery of the classical
(Greek and Roman) models. For a renaissance
analogy to hold in Tibet, one would
expect a kind of Indian Buddhist neoclassicism
in Tibetan art of the fifteenth century.
Thurman knows this and proposes (p.
36): "In the Tibetan case, the
new ideas were the rediscovery ... of
the old Indian ideals of Buddhist humanism."
In fact, Tibetan aesthetic taste did
not experience neoclassicism. It did
just the opposite, veering away from
the old Indian decorative elements and
adopting Chinese art for the depiction
of everything except the divine figures
themselves. This radical change was
the stylistic "revolution"
(not revival) led by the Tibetan painters
sMan-thang-pa and mKhyen-brtse.
The ultimate impulse for sMan-thang-pa's
stylistic change in ca. 1450 is not
to be sought in the insights or activities
of any Tibetan religious master of ca.
1400, but in the generosity and taste
of the Ming imperial court in the next
decade. The Ming Yongle emperor (reigned
1403-1424), by commissioning exquisite
Buddhist artworks and offering them
to the leading lamas of Tibet (including
one of Tsong-kha-pa’s top disciples)
whom he invited to his court, sowed
the seeds for the coming revolution
in Tibetan religious aesthetic taste.10
For it was Ming Buddhist masterpiece
paintings that sMan-bla-don-grub and
mKhyen-brtse took, about four decades
later, as their main sources of inspiration.
Delayed Penetration of Chinese
The penetration of Chinese landscapes
into the backgrounds of paintings that
began in the mid-fifteenth century (under
the delayed inspiration of Ming-court
Chinese Buddhist art) took a long time
to replace the older styles completely
in central Tibet. They were adopted
at first through the spread of various
more or less Tibetanized versions of
the sMan-ris, and to a lesser degree,
through the mKhyen-ris. Then, from the
mid-sixteenth century on, other Chinese
models penetrated via the sGar-bris.
Chinese landscapes were not assimilated
everywhere at the same speed. Rhie correctly
notes that they "reached universal
acceptance as settings for deities only
from the seventeenth century."
Even in the seventeenth century, some
connoisseurs such as the Fifth Dalai
Lama commissioned "copies"
of old art, thus producing paintings
without such backgrounds.
One interesting phenomenon documented
by the Rubin collection is the conservative
resistance that continued well into
the sixteenth century, both in Sa-skya-pa
art (where one would have expected it,
for example at Ngor) and in paintings
of the Karma bKa'-brgyud-pa. I refer
to six such paintings:
No. 85 (Ru 457), "first half of
the 16th century"
No. 86 (Ru 493), "mid 16th century"
No. 89 (Ru 162), "ca. 1500"
Nos. 103-105 (Ru 562, 561 and 536),
"mid 16th century"
Concerning painting no. 103 (Ru 562),
p. 317f., the gSang-'dus Rim-lnga lineage
is not the lineage of the whole set,
which portrays as main figures of each
thangka two lineage lamas of the Phyag-chen
(Zung 'jug). The gSang-'dus Rim-lnga
is the minor lineage portrayed in only
one thangka (Ru 560).
When assessing the penetration of Chinese
styles (Rhie 1999, p. 56ff.), the Sixteen
Arhats (or Sixteen Elders, gnas brtan
bcu drug) should be treated as a special
subject. Since this
cycle originated from China, by definition
it entailed more Chinese influence.
One can get a more accurate idea of
the extent to which Chinese styles have
penetrated a given Tibetan school by
looking at the backgrounds of iconographic
subjects that had no special link with
"Shakyamuni Buddha with Life-scenes"
(catalogue no. 13, Ru 264, p. 159f.),
is another such iconographic subject
that originated from China: a depiction
of a Chinese "Hundred Deeds of
the Buddha" (rgya mdzad).11
This iconographic cycle, too, should
eventually be gathered and investigated
as a group. Rhie's description of no.
13 mentions virtually all styles, even
the Tenth Karma-pa; however, the painting
seems to be by a sMan-ris artist.
1.a.i. Modern Successors to
the Old sMan-ris in dBus Province:
So-called "Gelukpa International
School" and the E-ris
In the thangka of "Guru Drakpochey
and the Between-State Deities,"
no. 179 (557), p. 445f., the clouds
are exactly those of a typical sMan-ris
of dBus province, central Tibet, of
the late nineteenth or early twentieth
century. Note the repeated shape of
the clouds and their unshaded outer
edges. There is no reason to attribute
this painting to Eastern Tibet.
By contrast, "Vaishravana and
the Eight Troll Generals," no.
58 (Ru 123 is now 90130), p. 238f.,
is by no means a typical Lhasa sMan-ris
of ca. 1900, which abhorred solid dark-blue
skies and would never outline clouds
with indigo. There is little to support
the hypothesis (p. 238), "possibly
by an artist working in Lhasa who combined
elements of the traditional New Menri
and Karma Gardri styles."
The sMan-ris commonly practiced by
artists of dBus province was not necessarily
the high art of the Dalai Lama's court
artists, though the traditions may have
overlapped at times. The
painting of Shakyamuni with Avadana legends,
no. 14 (Ru 494), p. 159ff., is attributed
to the refined New sMan-ris style of the
Lhasa workshops ca. 1900. This depiction
of certain episodes from Kshemendra's
work is based on sNar-thang blocks, and
at first glance it would seem to be a
fine gTsang-bris--note the very dark sky
above and the shading of clouds. It may
be possible in due course to differentiate
this possibly "Tashilhunpo court
art, ca. 1900 [?]" from "Lhasa
court art, ca. 1900," or to verify
Rhie's Lhasa supposition. I admit that
the style of no. 14 is similar to Jackson
1996, pl. 67, identified by me as in a
high court style of nineteenth-century
In "the Fourth Dalai Lama and
some previous incarnations," no.
128 (Ru 380), p. 357f., the main figure
is one of the Dalai Lamas, whose glorious
spiritual pedigree the thangka portrays.
The painting itself probably dates to
the mid- or late-seventeenth century
and not the eighteenth or nineteenth
century. This treatment of clouds as
dominating landscape elements is unusual
but not impossible for the late seventeenth
century. Such a
trulku-lineage portrait can hardly be
much later than the last historical figure
portrayed. Could the vase in the central
figure's left hand symbolize a prayer
for his long life, as it so clearly does for the facing portrait of the
Fifth Dalai Lama (cat. no. 129, Ru 506)?
It is understandable that Rhie and Thurman
had trouble identifying the main figure.
From an iconographical and structural
standpoint, one would expect the first
four Dalai Lamas below, but instead
18. Chos rgyal 'phags pa
19. dGe 'dun grub pa [the First Dalai
20. bSod nams rgya [mtsho] [the Third
21? Ngag dbang blo ....? rgya mtsho
22? Main figure [no inscription]
The inscription beneath figure no.
21 is the Fifth Dalai Lama's name. Note
his typical portrait with small mustache
(cf. cat. no. 129). So who could the
main figure be? The second, fourth or
even sixth Dalai Lama? Comparison with
other portraits might help solve this
The E-ris as an Important Old sMan-ris
Successor in dBus
E. Gene Smith 1970, p. 46, asserted
that the New sMan-ris of Chos-dbyings-rgya-mtsho
was the main origin of the later twentieth-century
Lhasa or central-Tibetan mode (after
blending with "Khyenri, Gadri and
later Indian influences"). A similar
opinion repeated several times by Rhie
is that Chos-dbyings-rgya-mtsho's New
sMan-ris later developed into the (Central-Tibetan)
sMan-ris "international style."
I have found no written source or other
authority for either assertion. M. Rhie
(1999, p. 68) suggests in the same vein
that the New sMan-ris of the Potala
murals became a national style for Gelukpa
monasteries throughout Tibet, and an
international style, spreading also
to Gelukpa establishments of Mongolia
and China. She describes this as "a
handsome and complex style, which can
overpower the viewer with its mass of
Jackson 1997. [back]
Jackson 1996. [back]
R. A. Stein 1987, p. 200, who concluded:
"D'autres écoles sont
encore mentionnées, mais
jusqu'ici on n'a guère trouvé
de peintures qu'on pourrait attribuer
à telle ou telle d'entre
elles." See also J. C. Huntington
1990, p. 229: "No documentary
or other direct evidence illustrates
the features that can identify paintings
of either the sMan bris or mKhyen
ris schools." See further P.
Pal in Singer and Denwood eds. 1997,
p. 11: "In the context of Tibetan
art, we can hardly give emphasis
to the work of an individual artist,
for so much of the art is anonymous.
...It is difficult to assemble a
corpus that might define an individual
artist's style." [back]
Gene Smith 1970. [back]
D. Jackson 1996, pp. 358 and 361,
notes 827 and 828, on the lineage
of Wangdrak's father and grandfather.
refer again to the list of Ngor
abbots in Jackson 1993, p. 127,
my review of Rhie and Thurman 1991.
briefly alluded to this point in
Jackson 1993, p. 120. [back]
presented the same thesis orally
at the Tibetan studies conference
at Bloomington in 1996. [back]
the invitation of Tsong-kha-pa,
see E. Sperling (1982), "The
1413 Embassy to Tsong-kha-pa and
the Arrival of Byams-chen Chos-rje
Shakya ye-shes at the Ming Court,"
Journal of the Tibet Society, vol.
2, pp. 105-107. [back]
the Chinese "Hundred Deeds,"
see Jackson 1996, p. 133, n. 249.
Jackson 1996, pl. 67, with Essen
and Thingo 1989, I-12, which also
has a fairly light horizon in the
Cf. Rhie 1991, p.62. [back]