Painting with Words: Gentlemen Artists of the Ming Dynasty

Wen Zhengming: Leader of the Wu School

An outstanding painter and calligrapher and an important trendsetter in his time, Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) was the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century. Born to a modestly successful scholar-official family, Wen was a late bloomer in the arts; he was particularly poor at calligraphy in his youth. But he persevered, studying painting with Shen Zhou (1427–1509), who is often considered the Wu School’s spiritual founder. Eventually, Wen mastered a wide range of painting styles and developed his own powerful, influential approach to calligraphy.

In 1527, when he returned to Suzhou after an unhappy three-year stint at the imperial court, Wen built a studio on his family’s land. For the next thirty-two years, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the life of a gentleman-scholar in retirement: reading, writing, painting, composing poetry, and socializing with likeminded friends. Wen’s pivotal importance to the Wu School is magnified by the length of his extraordinary career, his wide circle of friends and acquaintances, and the artistic renown of his many students, including his two sons and a nephew and extending to several generations of Wens.

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