Painting with Words: Gentlemen Artists of the Ming Dynasty

The Followers

Known for decades as the Wu School’s leader, Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) remained active as an artist until he died at age eighty-nine. By that time, several of his most outstanding followers had already passed away. Other artists, however, continued to work in styles heavily influenced by Wen Zhengming’s approach well into the final quarter of the sixteenth century. Among these were his two talented sons, Wen Peng (1498–1573) and Wen Jia (1501–1583), who directly emulated their father and shared many of his interests and concerns. Qian Gu (1508–after 1574) also faithfully adhered to the styles that Wen Zhengming had developed and promoted.

Other gentleman artists advanced Wen Zhengming’s legacy in new directions, such as Lu Zhi (1496–1576), who developed a unique, almost luminous style of landscape painting. The flourishing professional painter Xie Shichen (1487–after 1567) incorporated elements from other popular styles, but he continued to draw inspiration and material from literati culture and to rely on gentleman artists for calligraphic contributions to his scrolls. Wen Zhengming’s influence even extended to the generation of his great-grandson Wen Zhenmeng (1574–1636), a calligrapher. He and other local gentleman artists carried on producing collective scrolls and albums inspired by traditional themes, such as the “Eight Views of Xiao Xiang,” as well as by contemporary occasions.

Still, Wen Zhengming’s death deprived the Wu School of both its center of gravity and its leading light, and the vitality and prominence of Suzhou painting and calligraphy ultimately waned. By the early seventeenth century, the city’s economic clout also had diminished, owing in part to the rise of nearby Shanghai and other towns in the Yangzi delta region. Competing centers of artistic production diluted and eventually eclipsed the city’s premier cultural status. By the 1630s, the Wu School, though still highly influential, had given up its role as a dominant force.

Image Gallery

Boating past an empty pavilion, and regulated verse in running-cursive scriptEight Views of Xiao-XiangPoem by Cui Shu, in cursive script

Excursion to Red Cliff