His great grandfather Ma Fen served as painter in attendance at the Northern Song court in early 12th century, and both his grandfather Ma Xingzu and his father Ma Shirong held the same position at the Southern Song court in Hangzhou.
At some point after 1189, Ma Yuan received the same position under Emperor Guangzong. He evidently enjoyed a high reputation at the court and was a favorite of Emperor Ningzong (who wrote several poems inspired by Ma Yuan’s paintings); but nothing more is known about his life. He died in 1225.
His son, Ma Lin, who rose to the rank of painter-in-waiting, was the last painter in the family.
Although a very versatile painter, Ma is known today primarily for his landscape scrolls. His technique, like that of many contemporaries, was at first inspired by Li Tang. Eventually Ma developed a personal style, with marked decorative elements (“pine trees […] strong as if they were made of iron wire”, as described in a contemporary source).
A characteristic feature of many paintings is the so-called “one-corner” composition, in which the actual subjects of the painting are pushed to a corner or a side, leaving the other part of the painting more or less empty. [wikipedia]