He was born in Zhongling, present day Jinxian of Jiangxi Province. Dong Yuan was active in the Southern Tang Kingdom of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. He was from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province, which was a center for culture and the arts.
He was known for both figure and landscape paintings, and exemplified the elegant style which would become the standard for brush painting in China for the next nine centuries. He and his pupil Ju Ran were the founders of the southern school of landscape painting, and with Jing Hao and Guan Tong of the northern school they constituted the four seminal painters of that time.
As with many artists in China, his profession was as an official where he studied the existing styles of Li Sixun and Wang Wei. However, he added to the number of techniques, including more sophisticated perspective, use of pointillism and crosshatching to build up vivid effect.