Fishermen, after Jing Hao

Painted in monochrome (one color) ink, this painting highlights sixteen cartoonlike fishermen, many of whom are scholar-recluses, boating on a wide expanse of water. The eighteen-foot-long handscroll is dotted with fifteen small boats, each of which contains at least one of the fishermen napping, fishing, paddling, or enjoying the scenery. One boat is hidden behind a mountain. The painting unites the “three perfections”—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—which are interconnected modes of expression. The Chinese scholar class took special pleasure in works of art that integrated these three art forms.

The painting is attributed to Wu Zhen (1280–1354), one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Although well-educated, like many of the Chinese scholar class of his time, he never attempted to become a government official. The Yuan dynasty was a foreign-ruled dynasty founded by the Mongols through military occupation. Many scholars did not want to serve foreign conquerors, and the Mongols largely ignored the Chinese scholars. As a result, they withdrew from public life to pursue personal cultivation. Many created art embedded with statements of political protest. Scholar-hermits as lone fishermen is one of Wu’s favorite painting themes. Wu Zhen used the figure of a lone fisherman in his painting as a metaphor to reflect his views about court officials and society while revealing his choice to become a recluse. Like many Yuan dynasty painters, Wu was inspired by ancient art when he painted, and he wrote that he was inspired to create this scroll after seeing an earlier version of the theme by the artist Jing Hao (ca. 855–915).