In the mid-1690s, after a life of wandering, Shitao settled permanently in Yangzhou, a bustling commercial city on the Grand Canal that eclipsed Suzhou during the eighteenth century as the most vigorous economic and cultural center in China. Renouncing his monastic vows and taking the name Dadizi (大滌子), or “Greatly Purified One,” Shitao turned to painting as his sole means of support.
In Wilderness Colors, each leaf offers something unexpected, not only in the painter’s choice of subject and compositional arrangement but also in the subtle wit and touching personal insights revealed in the verbal and pictorial imagery. Many of the leaves were inspired by Du Fu (712–770) and Li Bai (701–762) of the Tang dynasty (618–907); others refer to personal experiences. In late-seventeenth-century criticism, an excess of technical versatility in painting was considered as bad as “overcooked” food. Shitao’s lighthearted account of eating vegetables raw reveals his intention to maintain an uninhibited style all his own.