Wen Zhengming (文徵明, 1470–1559) was a leading Ming dynasty painter, calligrapher and scholar. He is regarded as one of the painting elite – “the Four Masters of Ming” (明四家), which also includes Shen Zhou (沈周,1427–1509), Tang Yin (唐寅, 1470–1523) and Qiu Ying (仇英, ca.1495–1552). Together with his contemporaries Tang Yin, Zhu Yunming (祝允明, 1460–1526) and Xu Zhenqing (徐禎卿, 1479–1511), they are known as the “Four Literary Masters of the Wuzhong (today’s Suzhou)” (吳中四大才子) or “Four Literary Masters of Jiangnan (the region on the south of the Yangtze River)” (江南四大才子).
Born in present-day Suzhou, he claimed to be a descendant of the Song dynasty prime minister and patriot Wen Tianxiang. Conscientious in nature, for many years Wen Zhengming 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-Attendance at court. Later, however, differences between life as an official and his personal ideals led him to resign in 1526 and return to his hometown, whereupon he devoted his life to poetry, calligraphy, and painting instead.
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 up 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. His work often brings about a feeling of strength through isolation, which often reflected his discontent with official life. He collaborated in the design of the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政園), generally considered one of China’s four greatest gardens.