Painting with Words: Gentlemen Artists of the Ming Dynasty

The Gentleman in Retirement

Often hailed as the spiritual founder of the Wu School, the painter, poet, and calligrapher Shen Zhou (1427–1509) came from a well-connected lineage of gentleman artists who lived in the Suzhou suburb of Xiangcheng. Both his father and uncle were landscape painters. Shen rejected the official career path followed by most of his peers in favor of a life of art and personal fulfillment. Following his example, many later Wu School artists made the same choice.

For gentleman artists in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Suzhou, retirement consisted of socializing with other literati, refined activities such as art collecting, and a love of creature comforts such as elegant private gardens. These examples of his paintings and calligraphy reveal aspects of Shen’s life in retirement: engaging with likeminded friends, observing and commentating on everyday life, and spending time alone at home or in favorite pastimes, such as wandering the hills to find inspiration for poetry or a place to play his qin.

Shen is said to have had an open, generous character. His palpable enjoyment of nature imbues each painting and poem in this section, graciously inviting us to join in. Owing to Shen’s enduring influence and that of his immediate followers, these amiable qualities have come to characterize Wu School literati art.

Image Gallery

A Spring Gathering




Walking by a Mountain Stream

Seeking a Line of Poetry by a Spring Stream




Happy Fishermen of the River Village




Studio in a Bamboo Grove