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Shen Zhou (1427–1509), Solitary Angler on an Autumn River
Richard Barnhart
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This small handscroll painted in 1492 by one of China’s most beloved artists introduces a brilliant new stage in Chinese art history: Shen Zhou is the first great Chinese master to openly and systematically mold his personal life into the very substance of his art. During the fifty years he painted, this wealthy, untroubled, modest, and courteous man made of the ancient art of painting a means to embody and convey the experiences, memories, and emotions of the artist’s own life. Into his art he brought his friends and family, his daily experiences, his tastes for food and for colors, his quiet meditations on the world, affection for the living things of nature, and his fleeting feelings. Along the way he copied old paintings and sketched the commonplace things of daily life around him, from the flowers growing by his doorway to the donkey in his barn and the crab he ate for dinner. He also, more than any other painter before him, realized the expressive potential of the so-called “Three Perfections” of Chinese art—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—combining them in work after work that, in sum, encapsulate his life and his thoughts.Shen Zhou is the subject of one of the earliest Western monographs on any Chinese artist, Richard Edwards’ The Field of Stones: A Study of the Art of Shen Chou (1427-1509), Washington: The Freer Gallery of Art, 1962, and it remains an essential study. Edwards also wrote the biography of Shen Zhou in The Dictionary of Ming Biography: 1368-1644, L. Carrington Goodrich, ed. (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1976, 2 volumes) volume II, pp. 1173-1177. Siren’s detailed treatment of Shen Zhou is also noteworthy: Osvald Siren, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles, 7 volumes (New York: The Ronald Press, 1956-1958), vol. 4, pp. 148-172. A more recent survey of the artist and his work is found in James Cahill, Parting at the Shore (New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1978), pp. 60-96. For the Three Perfections, see Michael Sullivan, The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry, and Calligraphy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974. The Seattle painting is published in full in The Jade Studio: Masterpieces of Ming and Qing Painting and Calligraphy from the Wong Nan-p’ing Collection (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1994), pp. 74-77.

Shen Zhou began his study of art at an early age, having been raised in a wealthy, land-owning family of painters, scholars, calligraphers and poets that expected its scions naturally to develop abilities in these arenas of cultural and artistic pursuits. The Shen family lived in and around the city of Suzhou in the southeastern province of Jiangsu, famous for its canals and gardens, and its distinctive regional artistic tradition that had begun to attain cultural distinction in the fourteenth century. Though not the wealthiest man in China, Shen Zhou had sufficient means to acquire at least one of the great masterpieces of Chinese art history, Huang Gongwang’s 黃公望 (1269–1354) Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (Fuchun shanju tu富春山居圖). And unlike his distinguished younger associate, Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), who declared on principle that he “would never paint for eunuchs, women, or foreigners,” Shen was a man of great tolerance and widespread interests, and if he ever saw an old painting he didn’t like he failed to make note of it.

With an almost childlike freshness and naiveté he never stopped learning, looking, and responding to his feelings about life and art and their connections. Much of what he thought and felt about these matters he infused into his paintings and poetry, which are typically combined, as in the Seattle painting. His calligraphy, which he modeled closely on that of the Northern Song poet and calligrapher, Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045–1105), is as distinctive as his typical painting manner, and is seen to good effect in his inscription here. Both the characteristic features of his painting and the style of his calligraphy are of interest to the artist, less for themselves than for the texts they write and the images they create, and changed only modestly over a long lifetime once they came into play. It is commonplace in Chinese writings on Shen Zhou to distinguish essentially between only a “fine” style and a “sketchy” style; and though efforts have been made many times over the years to establish a clear formal chronology for the artist’s development, these efforts have proven to be more difficult and ambiguous in the case of Shen Zhou than such studies sometimes are.For a good example of the differences of opinion in such matters among specialists, see Wupai jiushi nian zhan吳派九十年展: “Ninety Years of Wu School Painting” (Taipei: The National Palace Museum, 1975), especially Jiang Zhaoshen’s comments on individual paintings by Shen Zhou. This superb catalog combines both Chinese and English texts.

The Seattle handscroll, painted when the artist was sixty-five and done in the “sketchy” style, demonstrates his affection for the Yuan landscape and bamboo painter Wu Zhen 吳鎮 (1280–1352). Wu was one of the “Four Great Masters” of the Yuan period [with Huang Gongwang, Wang Meng王蒙 (1308–1385), and Ni Zan倪瓚 (1301–1374)], and one of the many earlier painters who was an inspiration to Shen Zhou.All of the Yuan masters are treated fully in James Cahill’s Hills Beyond a River (New York: Weatherhill, 1976). It also allows us to understand Shen’s method of copying old paintings. The Wu Zhen painting that Shen copied has disappeared, but there are still many like it, such as the small handscroll formerly in the Crawford Collection (now Metropolitan Museum of Art), (fig. 1).A recent publication of the Metropolitan Museum’s Wu Zhen, with good reproductions, is Maxwell K. Hearn, How to Read Chinese Paintings (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), pp. 94-97. See also The Jade Studio (note 1), pp. 74-76. If we mentally reverse the Crawford scroll we can see how Shen Zhou copied the cliff and dense trees in Wu Zhen’s wet, rather blunt and loose technique, copied the fisherman and his boat in a few brief strokes, and reproduced the compositional structure. The cloud-shrouded distant mountains and foreground rock are missing in the Metropolitan Museum scroll but are seen commonly in Wu Zhen’s fisherman paintings, a subject especially generously represented in the Yuan artist’s oeuvre. In making his copy, Shen Zhou was also clearly less interested in subtle details of form and value than Wu Zhen had been, and he reduces richly varied nuances into something simpler and flatter.

Fig 1: Wu Zhen, Fisherman, 1984. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edward Elliott Family Collection, Gift of Douglas Dillon (1984.475.3).

Shen Zhou does not merely study his model and learn how it was made, but draws to himself the artistic, literary, and philosophical overtones associated with the art and life of the great master he copied. Wu Zhen, like Shen Zhou, though poor, was a retiring, gentle and humble man whose quiet life passed almost unnoticed. He called himself “Plum-blossom Daoist” (Meihua daoren) and was especially fond of painting fishermen and bamboo, two of the subjects that held deeply personal meanings for him. Bamboo was, of course, the perfect subject for Chinese artists living under Mongol rule, as it has always symbolized pliancy, strength, and survival. As for fishing, Wu Zhen claimed that he only fished for his dinner, not for fame—in other words, he did not follow a public path to success under the new foreign overlords but withdrew into reclusion; it is unlikely that Shen Zhou actually fished for his dinner, but perhaps for the pleasure he found in echoing the beloved activities of his historical mentors, and he never stopped delighting in copying and imitating the fisherman paintings of his admired predecessor. As a fisherman himself, Shen Zhou was just as happy reading by a stream.On the theme of fishing in Chinese painting, see John Hay, Along the River during Winter’s First Snow: A Tenth-Century Handscroll and Early Chinese Narrative,” The Burlington Magazine, May, 1972, pp. 294-303.

Wu Zhen was only one of the many earlier masters Shen Zhou admired and emulated through his lifetime, and it was, in fact, with Shen Zhou that another distinct characteristic of later Chinese painting began: the practice of painting “in the style of” earlier painters, most especially the “Four Great Masters” of the Yuan period, but also other painters and styles of great diversity. Nearly all scholar-painters after Shen Zhou loved to paint “in the manner of” the Yuan masters and their Song predecessors, and this practice was very important to Shen Zhou throughout his lifetime. In an album of favorite subjects he titled Dream Travel (Woyou 臥遊) (fig. 2), painted late in his life like the Seattle scroll, one leaf imitates Ni Zan, another Wu Zhen, closely comparable to the Seattle painting in style, and a third imitates the loose ink wash manner of the Song artists Mi Fu 米芾 (1051–1107) and his son Youren 米友仁 (1074–1153).This album is reproduced in Mingdai Wumen Huihua明代吳門繪畫 (Beijing: Palace Museum, 1990), pp. 33-37. Shen’s unmistakable personal style utilized elements he derived from Ni Zan, whose dry, pale style he imitated over and over; Huang Gongwang, whose masterpiece, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains Shen owned, inscribed, and copied from memory; Wang Meng, whose dense, hairy, and tangled manner he often imitated in his most ambitious, formally demanding, and purposeful gifts to distinguished men; and especially Wu Zhen, to whom he was drawn late in life almost as if discovering a kindred spirit, and whose rather blunt, simple, direct, and graphic brushwork and broad ink washes already seem to resemble Shen Zhou’s typical manner.The affinity between these two artists is nowhere better suggested than by a handscroll in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Wu Zhen’s Poetic Feeling in a Thatched Pavillion, dated 1347, with colophon by Shen Zhou. The brushwork is so much like Shen Zhou’s that I suspect that if details of it were intermixed with details from Shen Zhou’s familiar paintings, such as the twelve-leaf album of Tiger Hill views in Cleveland, it would be difficult to tell the difference. See Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980), no. 109, p. 134, and no. 155, pp. 187-190.

The striking thing is that while Shen Zhou imitated all of these and many other masters during his lifetime, he was somehow also able to form his own unmistakable artistic manner from a combination of elements drawn from all of them; thus, we recognize the identifying characteristics of, say, Wang Meng, or Ni Zan, or Wang Yuan王淵 (ca. 1280 – d. after 1349), or even Ma Yuan 馬遠 (active before 1189 – after 1225) and Li Cheng 李成 (919–967) in works done “in the manner of” those earlier painters, but also the entirely personal manner of Shen Zhou. Indeed, his personal brushwork and methods of composing paintings is so idiosyncratic and unmistakable that many painters, in his own time and later, imitated it so easily that their works are sometimes still mistaken for Shen’s. A perfectly lovely example of such an imitation Shen Zhou is also in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection, an album leaf now mounted as a hanging scroll (fig. 3), in which a casually-dressed scholar relaxes in a garden pavilion looking out at the red lotus flowers just beginning to open. The painting appears to be the work of a later Wu School painter, someone with the delicacy of Wen Boren 文伯仁 (1502–1575), for example, and who knew exactly how to create a Shen Zhou composition, and how to imitate his brushwork, calligraphy and poetry. If every brushstroke were not quite so perfect, and every shape and texture not quite so calculatedly designed and patterned like tapestry, it would have been even more persuasive. There are similar imitations of Shen Zhou’s paintings all over the world, including in every major Chinese museum.Little has yet been done to separate the real from the imitation in the case of Shen Zhou’s vast oeuvre, but the best and earliest attempt to clarify basic issues is Tseng Hsien-ch’i and Richard Edwards, “Shen Chou at the Boston Museum,” Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, 8 (1954), pp. 31-46.

Fig 3: Attributed to Shen Zhou, A Scholar in a Pavilion. © Seattle Art Museum.

The Yuan painter Wu Zhen, whose art is copied in the Seattle scroll, habitually copied older paintings himself, and his known models ranged from the late Tang pioneer of landscape painting, Jing Hao 荊浩 (ca. 855–915), to the classical masters Juran 巨然 (active ca. 960–985), Dong Yuan 董源 (d. 962), and Li Cheng.Shih Shou-chien has written most extensively about Wu Zhen’s copies; see Shih’s collection of essays on Chinese painting: Cong Fengge dao Huayi 從風格到畫意[From Style to Huayi: Ruminating on Chinese Art History] (Taipei: Shitou Chubanshe, 2010), pp. 188-193.  Joining this sequence to Shen Zhou’s own list of classical models we can observe that the entire evolution of Chinese landscape painting—from its origins in the tenth century right down to Shen Zhou’s immediate family— is somehow incorporated into the substance of his art. Some of Shen’s ancestors were quite close to the Yuan masters, and they transmitted this great tradition consciously and deliberately from one period to another as an act of cultural devotion. Enduring continuously for over a thousand years by now, this family tree of classical landscape painting in China appears to have no close parallel anywhere in the world, and is one of China’s most distinguished contributions to world art history. One of Shen Zhou’s prized possessions was a long handscroll containing paintings by twenty-one artists of the early Ming period—that is, Shen’s immediate predecessors—that ranged over the full spectrum of the artists of that time, from court painters and skilled professionals to retired scholars and members of Shen’s own family.Kathlyn Liscomb, “Shen Zhou’s Collection of Early Ming Paintings and the Origins of the Wu School’s Eclectic Revivalism,” Artibus Asiae, VII, 3-4 (1992), pp. 215-254.

Shen Zhou’s copies certainly form an important part of his massive oeuvre. We may too easily forget how important the making of copies was before the rise of photography and modern reproduction techniques, but without some form of copy there was no image, style, or technique to remember; there were no public museums, and most famous paintings were in either inaccessible private collections or the restricted imperial archives. Shen Zhou and other painters were probably more frequently engaged in copying than in any other aspect of painting, for this reason, and professional painters and ateliers undoubtedly kept vast stores of copies of every kind among their primary resources. It was also common for one painter to ask another to make copies of works they themselves could not see.

From at least the eleventh century on, some famous paintings were copied as woodblock prints and widely disseminated; these prints had vast influence on the spread of artistic knowledge, but they were basically much simplified, linear reductions of subtle and complex painterly works of art, and poor substitutes for hand-painted copies. Copies were esteemed almost as highly as original works, to a point that lends semantic uncertainty to the meanings of original and copy in Chinese thought; and, of course, many of the profound problems confronting connoisseurs and scholars of Chinese painting and calligraphy today are owed directly to this tradition.

The varied copies we have from Shen Zhou’s hand offer valuable insights into a great Chinese artist’s approach to his models and authorities, as we suggested in comparing the Seattle scroll with an approximation of its model, and in the case of Shen Zhou are an excellent indication of his openness and wide-ranging interests as a practicing artist. Some of the artists admired and studied carefully by Shen Zhou were independent professional painters or even court painters of the type his more conservative followers generally belittled or avoided mentioning altogether. In fact, the most brilliant and lauded court and professional painter of the time, Wu Wei 吳偉 (1459–1508), known as “Little Immortal,” was a respected younger friend of Shen Zhou, even though Wu’s showy, virtuosic art and brief dissipated life are in many ways just the opposite of Shen Zhou’s; and painters such as Shi Zhong 史忠 (1437–1519) and Xu Lin 徐霖 (1462–1538), whose “wild and heterodox” painting was disparaged by later orthodox artists, were also Shen Zhou’s friends.For these painters and their friendship with Shen Zhou, see Siren (note 1), pp. 128-172; and James Cahill, Parting at the Shore (note 1), pp. 98-107, 139-140.

One of Shen’s most impressively careful, detailed, and ambitious copies is of a lost painting by the most influential professional and court master of the preceding generation, Dai Jin 戴進 (1388–1462), depicting the wealthy literatus Xie An 謝安 (320–385) and his entourage of beautiful women walking through a richly-detailed landscape painted in the ancient, romantic “blue-and-green” style of colorful antiquity (fig. 4). Shen’s copy was painted in 1480 and played a significant role in the formation of his own personal style, which was a matter of some concern to him at that time and just beginning to take form.In the collection of Wan-go H. C. Weng. Reproduced in color in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji: Huihua Bian中國美術全集:繪畫編, vol. 7 (Shanghai, n.d.), pl. 1.

Fig 4: Shen Zhou, After Dai Jin’s “Taifu Xie travels among the East Mountain painting”, 1480.© Collection of Wan-go H. C. Weng. Photo courtesy of Wenwu Publisher, Beijing.

Perhaps the most astonishing copy by Shen Zhou we have is a silk handscroll over fifty feet long in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, painted over a period of three months in the autumn of 1493 (fig. 5). Many years before he had been deeply impressed by a Song handscroll combining works by the two greatest Southern Song court painters, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui夏珪 (active ca. early 13th c.), that he saw in the collection of the historian Qian Fu錢福 (1461–1504). Early in the fall of 1493 his intimate friend Wu Kuan 吳寬 (1435–1504), an official at the Ming court, came for a visit and showed Shen the same long handscroll, which he had acquired. Shen was again stunned by the painting and borrowed it for three months while he made a careful copy in ink and slight color on silk. Both Wu Kuan and Wen Zhengming wrote colophons for the painting, which, unfortunately, has long been regarded with suspicion and generally ignored by scholars. There is no better evidence of the artist’s diligence and devotion to the art of painting than this disciplined undertaking of three months.Reproduced and discussed as an original work by Jiang Zhaoshen in Ninety Years of Wu School Painting (note 2), pp. 236-239, p. 299, and p. 343.

In similar fashion, like a humble student of the old masters, Shen Zhou had long before also copied a large, intricately-detailed, colorful painting of a garden filled with flowers and birds by the Yuan flower-and-bird painter Wang Yuan (dated 1468; Cleveland Museum), painstakingly reproducing his lost model (fig. 6).Reproduced in color in Richard Edwards et al, Shin Sho Bun Chomei [Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming], volume 4 in the series Bunjinga Suihen (Chinese Painters), Kohara Hironobu, ed., pl. 3, p. 8. His copies and studies “in the manner” of other painters date from every period of his life, and he was still copying paintings as an old man.

Fig 6: Shen Zhou, Yellow Chrysanthemums and Red Osmanthus in the Style of Wang Yuan,1468. © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. A. Dean Perry 1997.100.

In the lower left corner of the Seattle painting Shen Zhou wrote a song-poem, a ci, composed by him, which can be translated as follows:

The setting sun glows along the riverbank,

Casting long shadows across the waves.

Strange indeed that the sparse trees and scattered leaves

Seem to accompany the old fellow with two short earlocks.

As things decay and life declines 

Set off in a small fishing boat

And flow with the autumn tide.

Let the peaceful sound of a flute send the moon on high,

Arrange for no companions,

Drift, alone and free.Translation by the author. An alternative translation is provided in the ‘Inscriptions’ section.

The poem tells a story suggested by the painting Shen Zhou copied, supplying details not in the painting, such as the setting sun, the sound of a flute, the rising moon, lapping waves. Voice is important in story-telling and the voice here is deliberately ambiguous, allowing us to read the story as if told by Wu Zhen, by the fisherman in the painting, or by Shen Zhou. This ambiguity of voice, like the continuous tradition of copying from one master to another, has the effect of connecting the viewer to a chorus of historical voices and images of which he becomes a part.

Shen Zhou’s poetry constitutes a study in itself.A selection of Shen Zhou’s poetry survives as Shitian shixuan石田詩選 (A selection of Shen Zhou’s poetry), Sikuquanshu四庫全書, Wenyuange文淵閣 ed. The poetry of painters and on paintings is the subject of an article by Jonathan Chaves (“The Chinese Painter as Poet,” in Alfreda Murck and Wen C. Fong. Eds., Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 431-458), and an exhibition catalog: The Chinese Painter as Poet (New York: China Institute, 2000). A recent study of Shen Zhou’s art, including both his calligraphy and his poetry, is Peter C. Sturman, “Spreading Falling Blossoms: Style and replication in Shen Zhou’s Late Calligraphy,” Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies, Sept., 2010, pp. 366-410. Still, the most rewarding exploration of Shen Zhou’s poetry, as with his painting, is Edwards, The Field of Stones (note 1). He wrote poems throughout his life, and to an outsider they appear to be much like his paintings in their simplicity and directness, while harboring deep learning and wide-ranging knowledge of literary history. Poems by painters—the category to which Shen’s poetry inevitably belongs—are generally not taken altogether seriously by literary critics, but often attain a very distinctive character. Shen Zhou’s poems have the virtue of echoing closely the uncomplicated and directly expressive character of the paintings that they often accompany, and add dimensions to his painting that are often not visible there. We have already seen an example of this in his poem for the Seattle painting. Another accompanies his well-known Poet on a Mountain, from an album of Suzhou scenes in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: 

White clouds enfold the mountain’s waist like a scarf;

Stone steps fly into space, a fine road winding.

Alone, leaning on my staff, I gaze into the distance

And answer the distant sound of flowing water with my flute.

On a handsome, large hanging scroll (in the National Palace Museum), titled The Staff-bearing Wanderer or Walking with a Staff (cezhang tu 策杖圖) (fig. 7), stylistically recalling Ni Zan, that master of dry branches, sparse leaves, and isolation, Shen inscribed a poem that harmonizes perfectly with the contemplative, antique air of his painting:

The mountain is quiescent as if in remote antiquity,

Man’s feelings are tranquil and harmonious.

In blissful leisure, forgetting all worldly cares,

I dwell peacefully among streams and rocks.

White clouds enhance the beautiful cliffs,

A fresh breeze sweeps through the empty bamboo and trees.

My sun hat and clogs do not restrain me,

From exploring any hillock or wild land.

Walking alone, without companion,

Lightly humming a poem, with a slow and gentle rhythm. Translation from Wen C. Fong, Images of the Mind (Princeton: The Art Museum, 1984), p. 147; the painting is reproduced on p. 146. Fong’s discussion of the painter in the context of the concurrent “Philosophy of Mind” is especially valuable: ibid., pp. 142-151.

Shen’s poems often address birds, for which he clearly felt an affinity, and he spoke of them as friends. These poems are sometimes playful, song-like, and simple, as when he wrote of swallows, but at other times seem more serious. In a beautiful, large painting in the Honolulu Academy of Arts called The Winter Garden (Xue jiao tu 雪蕉圖), Shen depicts a turtle-dove, half-covered in snow, perched and frozen on a snow-covered banana tree (fig. 8). Another dove and a pigeon hunt for food on the ground below, and colorful flowers and berries appear elsewhere, but all attention is focused on the frozen bird above. Shen’s poem is not dated, but the painting is probably a work of the last decade of his life. In it he addresses the bird:

When the year is cold, wind and snow fill garden and wood.

A lone bird sits hugging a withered stem—one would think it unbearable!

Are his feelings on the extreme suffering of his journey?

Who knows what is in a lonely wanderer’s heart.The painting is cataloged in Edwards, Field of Stones (note 1), catalog no. XXXIII, pp. 99-100. The translation of the poem included there was done by Gustav Ecke, and has been slightly modified by me. For excellent reproductions see Ecke’s Chinese Paintings in Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

This theme of the lonely wanderer is common to all of the paintings we have been considering, including the Seattle scroll, and rests at the center of Shen Zhou’s universal appeal as an artist, I believe.

My personal impression is that in his poetry, as in his painting, Shen Zhou rarely tried to impress anyone except by his sincerity and simplicity. One always wants to think of him as somehow a cherished familiar, like a kindly old uncle. Neither his painting nor his poetry or calligraphy broke any new ground; yet, together they tell the story of his life.

Following his song-poem on the Seattle scroll is a note by the painter, added as if he were writing a daily diary entry:

“In the autumn of the renzi year of the Hongzhi era (1492), on the 20th day of the ninth month, a guest brought me Mei-hua Daoren’s Fishing at Evening on an Autumn River [Solitary Angler on an Autumn River]. Its brushwork was vigorous and strong, with profound understanding of Dong [Yuan] and Ju[ran]. Inspired by it I made this copy. I am mortified by its ugliness. Viewers should not regard it as a painting.” —[signed] Shen Zhou

These humble apologies were standard fare among scholar-painters, but Shen goes further than most, constantly belittling his abilities and extolling the far greater achievements of his predecessors. He wrote his inscription from left to right instead of writing from right to left as was common. I suppose he did this because he began to write quite casually and did not know what he would write or how long it might end up being: this way there was always more room to the right. Like the painting itself the inscription has a casual, easy look, more like something he was doing for himself than for someone else. On the other hand, we do know that Shen Zhou was kept quite busy by the demands made for his art by government officials, powerful individuals, friends, relatives, and members of his immediate family: it appears that the largest part of his extant oeuvre was painted under some form of obligation of this type.On this subject see Shi Shou-chien, Cong Fengge dao Huayi (note 8), pp.227-242: “Shen Zhou’s obligatory paintings and his audience” (in Chinese).

Nonetheless, and perhaps surprisingly, it was some reflection of the artist’s life and thought that his admirers always wanted when they approached him from whatever position of power or personal relationship to seek his work, and the paintings, with their layers of inscriptions and colophons from successive generations, have become even more like historical annals of human lives and activities. Here is a short and very selective list of some of the things we know about Shen Zhou from looking at his paintings:

He sometimes drank too much and painted while drinking, usually in the company of close friends.Shen Zhou frequently refers to drinking wine at friendly gatherings, often until late at night. See, for example, the colophons written for the handscroll in Boston done around 1486, Watching the Mid-Autumn Moon, catalog no. XXIII in Edwards, Field of Stones (note 1), and discussed in his text, pp. 27-28.

The day after one such occasion, sometime around 1470, he wrote a poem on a painting he had done the night before, while drinking, to reflect very personally and emotionally on the challenging question of how he had so far failed to develop a distinctive personal style.This is the famous Landscape for Liu Jue, or Sketchy Landscape in the National Palace Museum, often discussed, as e.g. in Cahill, Parting at the Shore (note 1) and by Sturman (note 16).

His mother loved day lilies.Noted by him in his inscription on a painting of daylilies in the Palace Museum; see Zhongguo Meishu Quanji (note 10), pl. 12.

He especially enjoyed painting while on boat trips, like the one he often took to and from Stone Lake; in the tenth month of 1466, while on such a trip he painted a landscape in the manner of Ni Zan that is now in the Art Institute of ChicagoEdwards, Field of Stones, no. III..

In 1467, on the 5th day of the 5th month, Duanyang, on the occasion of his teacher Chen Kuan’s陳寬 (1398–after 1467) seventieth birthday Shen Zhou presented him with a painting, Lofty Mt. Lu, comparing his teacher to a great mountain. He also painted handsome gift pictures for Wu Kuan, Liu Jue劉玨 (1410–1472), Yang Yiqing 楊一清 (1454–1530), and many others on special occasions.Ninety Years of Wu School Painting, color plate 1; and Edwards, Field of Stones, cat. No. IV.

That he passed the rainy night of May 2, 1477 at a boat slip east of Suzhou with his friend Zhou Weide 周惟德; after the rain stopped he tried to paint the mood of “stillness and quiet” that accompanied the clearing rain.Maxwell K. Hearn, Cultivated Landscapes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002), pp. 10-19.

Around the time he turned sixty he sat up through the night with several friends and a pet crane drinking wine and composing poems while they watched the mid-autumn moon rise. Edwards, Field of Stones, XXIII.

That he sat with his son-in-law through a long, rainy night during the early winter of the year 1487, enjoying the misty fog, and tried to capture the mood by recalling the paintings of the Song artist Mi Youren米友仁 (1074-1153). He gave the painting and his poem to his son-in-law.Ninety Years of Wu School Painting, no. 034.

That he sat quietly through one long night in 1492, listening to the silence, and attained what he considered to be a form of enlightenment; in the morning he painted a small picture of the experience and inscribed a long, personal essay above it.This is the famous Night Vigil in the National Palace Museum; see Edwards, Field of Stones, XXXVI; Cahill, Parting at the Shore, 90-91; and Kathlyn Liscomb, “The Power of Quiet Sitting at Night: Shen Zhou’s (1427-1509) Night Vigil,” in Monumenta Serica: Journal of Oriental Studies, XLIII, 1995, pp. 381-403.

He often went to Tiger Hill, a famous Suzhou landmark, with friends and family, wandering around, sitting on the large rocks, climbing into the hills, visiting Buddhist temples, composing poems, watching the moon, drinking tea or wine—and later painting his memories of these experiences.Of the many paintings on the theme of visiting Tiger Hill, see especially the Cleveland Museum’s album, “Twelve Views of Tiger Hill,” reproduced and discussed in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting (Cleveland: Claveland Art Museum, 1980), no. 155.

He loved the taste of loquats, and the color of new-born chicks, which reminded him of wine.His loquats are reproduced in Mingdai Wumen Huihua (note 6), p. 13; his chicks in Edwards, Field of Stones (note 1), cat. XIX.

The coming and going of birds such as swallows and doves formed part of his seasonal calendar, reminding him of passing time, and of the idea of relativity: the birds always seemed to be the same while he just grew older.Returning Swallows, collection unknown; reproduced in A Garland of Chinese Paintings, 5 volumes (Hong Kong: CAFA, 1968), Wang Shih-chieh and Na Chih-liang, eds., vol. III, pl. 5. See also Shen’s “Turtle Dove Calling the Rain” in the National Palace Museum: Ninety Years of Wu School Painting (note 2), no. 070; and “The Winter Garden” in Honolulu, discussed above.

He liked to sketch the familiar things around him, such as a chicken, some clam shells, his donkey, his cat, etc. On one such painting, dated 1494, he noted that while he enjoyed randomly sketching the living things around him, he himself was not to be found in such sketches.National Palace Museum: Ninety Years of Wu School Painting, no. 044; Edwards, Field of Stones, XXXVII; Cahill, Parting at the Shore, pp. 94-96.

On other paintings of such subjects, however, he added short, simple poems that transform sketches from life into more expressive personal reflections. In a strong depiction of a chicken looking up at two butterflies under a chrysanthemum bush, painted in 1509, two months before his death, he joins observation to philosophical reflection on the mystic Zhuangzi 莊子(4th century B.C.) and the quiet life of retirement lived by the poet Tao Qian陶潛 (376-427). Osaka Municipal Museum: Bunjinga Suihen, vol. 4 (note 12), pl. 45, p. 52.

When he turned eighty he had his portrait painted and inscribed it twice, making fun of his physical appearance, as was traditional, and noting with equanimity that “only a wall now separates me from death.”Reproduced and discussed in Richard Vinograd, Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraiture, 1600-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pl. 5 and pp. 28-29. In making this list I am again following in the footsteps of Professor Richard Edwards, who long ago did something similar in his article, “Shen Chou and the Scholarly Tradition,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXIV/1 (Fall, 1965), pp. 45-52.

Shen Zhou, as noted, was heir to a brilliant family tradition of art, poetry, scholarship, and collecting. His elders, from whom he learned so much, included both his father and his uncle, a professional master from Suzhou named Shen Yu沈遇 (1377–1448), who was the teacher of both his father and uncle, and the gifted painters Du Qiong杜瓊 (1396–1474), Yao Shou 姚綬 (1422–1495), and Liu Jue, all of whom were intimates of the Shen family. In time, in turn, many younger painters were drawn into Shen Zhou’s orbit, forming the historical group called the Wumen or Wu school, after the city of Suzhou in which they lived. This loose group included highly trained professional masters such as Qiu Ying, mercurial, brilliant wastrels such as Tang Yin, and the dignified, withdrawn Wen Zhengming, whose accomplished painting and calligraphy stand beside those of Shen Zhou to define the highest achievement of Wumen art. The Wu school and its ideals, established by Shen Zhou and his early associates, was the dominant artistic movement of the period from 1450 until 1600, enduring as such until the appearance of Dong Qichang董其昌 (1555–1636).

Confucius famously said of himself that he did not invent, merely transmitted, and of all Chinese painters Shen Zhou seems to me the most Confucian in that sense. He was interested in everything, tolerant of all forms of knowledge, devoted to his family and friends, humble, modest, decent, generous, and dedicated to understanding and transmitting to posterity the achievements of others. It is also perfectly clear from his art that his thought was strongly influenced by Buddhism as well as the new form of Confucianism known as the “School of Mind.” He felt the same affinity for animals, birds, trees, and flowers as for human beings, and knew himself to be a part of a living universe.

Appendix: A Note on the Colophons

Attached to the Seattle painting are a total of twenty-three colophons, the first twenty-two of which were written by scholars and artists of the sixteenth century having close associations with  Suzhou and environs, including several of the key figures that identify the Wu school itself. Among the most notable writers are Wen Zhengming, Shen Zhou’s leading follower, Wen Jia, his son, Wang Guxiang, Huang Jishui, and Peng Nian. These colophons mainly consist of poems on the theme of the moon and the river, and respond to these motifs from a Chan Buddhist perspective. The fourteenth colophon is dated 1579, and was written by Shen Shixing 申時行 (1535–1614). In it he tells us that a Buddhist monk named Yuejiang (“Moon River”) owned the painting at that time and sent it to the writer with a request that he add a poem before returning it. While the colophon does not mention Shen Zhou, it does specifically refer to a “handscroll,” as a “painting.” The eighteenth colophon begins “A poem on moon and river for Monk Jue,” which was presumably another name of Monk Yuejiang. The twenty-third colophon was written by Lu Zhaoyin (1585–1664) of Taicang, which was a part of Suzhou at the time. He explains his own understanding of the history of the scroll and its colophons in a way that seems to be aimed at those who may have raised doubts as to the original connection between painting and colophons. Some contemporary scholars have also doubted that the colophons were originally written for Shen Zhou’s painting, and Lu’s colophon may not quite extinguish those doubts:

Shen Qinan’s Fishing at Evening on an Autumn River [Solitary Angler on an Autumn River], copied after a painting by Mei Shami (“Plum-blossom monk,” another name used by Wu Zhen), is ethereal and spiritual yet substantial and real. This is Mr. Shen’s masterpiece. Later it was owned by Monk Yuejiang, who invited twenty-two famous men to write colophons for it. Since the monk was named Yuejiang (“Moon River”), and Shen Zhou’s own poem on the painting was written to the tune “The Moon is High” (Yue’er gao), all the writers expounded on the theme of the moon and the Chan mind. They compared the fishing boat to the Buddhist ‘crossing to the other side,’ and Wen Zhengming even likened the fishing boat to the principles of Chan itself. That a reclusive monk was able to gather together the outstanding talents of a nation into his net (not without a certain inappropriate ambition of his own!) to create this glittering array—such is the great achievement of Monk Moon River!”  — [Lu] Zhaoyin

The only Yuejiang who has been identified lived from 1401 to 1479, and could not have sent the painting to Shen Shixing in 1579. Perhaps Yuejiang’s disciples sent the scroll; perhaps the dates of the brief biography of Yuejiang are wrong; perhaps there were other monks who called themselves Yuejiang. Whatever those facts may be, the best reason to believe that all the colophons before Lu Zhaoyin’s may not have been written for Shen Zhou’s painting is simply that even those writers most intimate with the artist—in particular, Wen Zhengming—do not mention Shen Zhou by name. Almost certainly they would have done so if they knew they were writing about their beloved associate. In any case, the colophons are both documents themselves and examples of fine calligraphy, written by many of the best calligraphers of the sixteenth century. They offer insight into mid-Ming Chan thought and imagery, but they tell us nothing of either the painting or the painter, only of the writers. Two Japanese notes of authentication are also preserved with the painting, one by Nagao Uzan (1864–1942) dated 1919, the other by the famous Naito Torajiro (1866–1934), who notes perceptively that Shen Zhou’s style was derived jointly from the Song academic master Xia Gui and the Yuan scholar-painter, Wu Zhen. 

The painting and all Chinese colophons are fully recorded in Lu Shihua 陸時化’s (1714-1779) catalogue Wu Yue suojian shuhua lu 吳越所見書畫錄 (Lu Fusheng 盧輔聖 et al, Zhongguo Shuhua Quanshu中國書畫全書, Shanghai, 1994), vol. 8, pp. 1065-1066. There is a brief biography of a Monk Yuejiang in Dawen 大聞, Shi jian jigu luexuji 釋鑒稽古略續集, juan 3.My thanks to Professor Qianshen Bai and his students for help with this note.

© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum


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