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.
Poem in running script
Artist: Wen Zhengming 文徵明 (1470-1559)
Historical Period(s): Ming dynasty, early 16th century
Medium: Hanging scroll; ink on paper
Dimensions: H x W (image): 349 x 100.8 cm (137 3/8 x 39 11/16 in)
Wen Zhengming’s poem, titled At Leisure in My Studio at Year’s End, may be translated as follows:
The lane at my gate is desolate and drear, few are those who come to call;
I find the true flavor of restful leisure in lounging about doing nothing.
A wayward rooster in the quiet of the day crows within the deep courtyard;
Chill sparrows shelter from western winds in this little stand of trees.
All my affairs have slipped into arrears as the year draws to its close;
My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.
Fragrance fades from the incense burner and the teacups have toppled over;
I have composed a poem on plum blossoms, but am sorry it’s not well done.
Translation by Stephen D. Allee (Source: asia.si.edu/Smithsonian)