During the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Jiangnan region immediately south of the lower Yangtze River witnessed economic prosperity and great achievements in the arts. It was a time that saw the rise of such prominent artists as Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin, and Qiu Ying, who became known as the “Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty.” The collection of the National Palace Museum is distinguished for their artworks in terms of both quantity and quality. This year, the Museum has planned a yearlong special exhibit divided into four periods, each focusing on one of these masters to provide a complete presentation of their artistic development. This rotation of the exhibit deals with the artist considered the leader of this group, Shen Zhou, offering a selection of his painting and calligraphy from the Museum collection along with related works manifesting the origins and accomplishments of his style.
Shen Zhou (style name Qi’nan; sobriquets Shitian and Baishiweng), a native of Xiangcheng in Changzhou County, Suzhou Prefecture, was born in the second year of the Xuande reign (1427) and died in the fourth year of the Zhengde reign (1509), reaching the age of 83 by Chinese reckoning. His family had lived in Changzhou for generations and, despite the scholarship of his grandfather Shen Mengyuan, father Shen Hengji, and uncle Shen Zhenji, none of the members had served as an official. The family, however, had a substantial collection of art, and was renowned for its accomplishments in poetry, calligraphy, and painting, being active in various cultural circles.
Since childhood, Shen Zhou was able to recite text at a glance and stood out for his outstanding intelligence. In early years, he studied under Chen Kuan, possessing a firm foundation in traditional studies of the classics and also dabbling in medicine and divination as well as unofficial histories and tales. More importantly, he became an accomplished poet, calligrapher, and painter. Influenced by members of his family, Shen Zhou also was a skilled connoisseur of art. Known for his sincere and good-natured character, he never sat for the civil service examinations, turning down offers of appointment on several occasions to care for members of his family, preferring instead to lead a happy life of reclusion. Though Shen may be considered a recluse, he maintained close relations with a number of scholars in the Suzhou area. Not only doing poetry, calligraphy, and painting for each other, they also often met for trips, taking in the scenery of famous sites in the Suzhou area. The teacher-friends with whom Shen Zhou maintained close contact include Wu Kuan and Wang Ao, who had a strong background in the arts. With their great collections and keen eye for art, they often engaged in exchanging, viewing, and composing poetry, an artistic activity that became an important cultural underpinning for the Wu School of painting that emerged at this time.
This special exhibition on Shen Zhou is divided into three sections on “The Origins of Shen Zhou’s Art,” “Shen Zhou’s Art of Calligraphy,” and “The Characteristics of Shen Zhou’s Painting,” offering a comprehensive overview of his painting and calligraphy as well as the art and collections of Shen and friends. The brushwork in Shen Zhou’s “Album of Sketching from Life,” for example, is lively and fluid, a masterpiece on display in a gallery by itself. Altogether, more than sixty sets of works are being presented in this exhibit, offering a complete presentation of Shen Zhou’s art.
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