Painting with Words: Gentlemen Artists of the Ming Dynasty

At Court and Beyond

During the fifteenth century, many leading gentleman artists of Suzhou spent a good part of their adult lives either serving at court in the imperial capital, Beijing, or out on provincial assignments. Often, they only returned home occasionally or after retirement. Several, such as Xia Chang (1388–1470), Xu Youzhen (1407–1472), and Wu Kuan (1435–1504), embraced these roles, distinguishing themselves in the national jinshi(advanced scholar) examinations and rising to high government offices. As artists, these men were known primarily as poets and calligraphers—except for Xia, who was also a master of the gentlemanly art of ink-bamboo painting.

The lifestyles of Liu Jue (1410–1472) and Shen Zhou (1427–1509) signaled a major alternative to serving at court. Liu only served in the capital for some eight years; Shen opted out entirely. Instead, they spent their lives in and around Suzhou, happily engaged in scholarly and artistic pursuits within their gardens and estates. Occasionally they visited friends, making communal forays into nature and to local scenic or historical sites. This lifestyle became a hallmark of Wu School gentleman artists.

Many Wu School artists were related by blood, marriage, and other formal relationships. They may have been family friends or schoolmates, taken their examinations together, studied as teacher and student, or done business as patron and client. The artists’ relationships carried over into their poetry and artworks, which often were inherently personal in nature.

Image Gallery

Four Poems, in running script

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain

Scenery of Lin’an