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Past Exhibits

Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty: Wen Zhengming
Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty: Wen Zhengming
  • Dates: 2014/04/03~2014/06/30
  • Gallery: (Northern Branch) Exhibition Area I 202,204,206,208,210,212

Exhibit Info

The National Palace Museum has a fine collection of works by the Four Great Masters of the Ming Dynasty (Shen Zhou [1427-1509], Wen Zhengming [1470-1559], Tang Yin [1470-1524], and Qiu Ying [ca. 1494-1552]) and is presenting a series of special exhibitions on these artists this year. Following the first exhibit on Shen Zhou, this represents the second installment, which focuses on the painting and calligraphy of Wen Zhengming. A native of Changzhou (modern Suzhou in Jiangsu), he was originally named Bi but later went by his style name instead. Changing his style name to Zhengzhong, he also had the sobriquets Hengshan jushi and Tingyunsheng. Conscientious as a person and in his dealings with others, for many years he aspired to a career in office. After failing nine times at the civil service examinations in the capital, in 1523 he was finally recommended as a Hanlin Academician-in-Waiting at court. Later, however, differences between life as an official and his own personal ideals led him to resign in 1526 and return to his hometown, whereupon he devoted his life to poetry, painting, and calligraphy instead. Free from cares and creating for his own amusement, he became a greatly accomplished artist. The longest living of the Four Great Masters and attracting many students, Wen Zhengming had sons who followed in his footsteps and many disciples as well. Consequently, he had a great impact on painting and calligraphy of the middle and late Ming dynasty and became known along with Shen Zhou as leader of the Wu School.
In calligraphy, Wen Zhengming studied a wide range of artworks from the past. An exceptionally diligent student, he himself said that practicing calligraphy was one of his daily activities upon waking every morning, never tiring of it throughout his life. Wen came to excel at the major calligraphic types, with small regular and running scripts most reflecting his personal style. His small regular script is sharp and orderly, and even at the age of ninety he could still do tiny “gnat’s-head” writing. Wen’s running script is also elegant yet vigorous, with most of such surviving works tending towards semi-cursiveness.
As for painting, Wen Zhengming first took Shen Zhou as his teacher, but later with his family’s rich collection of art and his extensive social network, he had the opportunity to study and appreciate the works of ancient masters, establishing a unique style of his own. Gifted at using both ink and colors, the gradations of his light and dark ink tones are as varied as they are dynamic. In coloring, Wen mostly worked with washes of blue and green. Despite the use of bright colors, he was able to give them a refreshingly pure and elegantly light harmony. Wen Zhengming’s brushwork appears mainly in two types, fine and coarse. His fine style features a sense of beautiful smoothness and pure force, while the coarse one reveals his hoary strength and mature skill. With considerable ability in both painting and calligraphy, he often applied calligraphic brushwork to his paintings. In terms of subject matter, Wen mostly painted landscapes, but he also occasionally did figural and bird-and-flower themes. Sometimes abbreviated and at other times sedate, they all reflect the refined ease and spirit of the literatus.
This exhibit is divided into two parts that deal with Wen Zhengming’s calligraphy and painting. The calligraphy section, further divided into “Development in Calligraphy” and “Calligraphy in Painting,” explains the differences in his style and the influence of his calligraphy on painting. The painting section features four parts: “Development in Painting,” “In the Style of the Ancients,” “Same Subject, Several Versions,” and “Birds-and-Flowers and Figures,” presenting his style of landscape painting at different stages of his career and introducing rare and refined interpretations of bird-and-flower and figural subjects.
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