From music to drama, cuisine to garden design, members of the Wu School excelled in all forms of creative expression. Centered on the affluent city of Suzhou and nearby towns, this driving force of Chinese culture during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) took its name from a kingdom that once ruled the region. Of all their talents, Suzhou’s artists were most admired by contemporaries and later generations for their poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These complementary art forms, known collectively in China as the Three Perfections, were considered the ultimate modes of literati expression.
Opening Saturday, Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty celebrates Wu School works, examining the relationships among their imagery, brushstrokes, and, especially, words. Selections are drawn from the Freer|Sackler—home to one of the best Wu School collections in the country—as well as other museums and collections.
You’ll encounter works by some two dozen Wu School painters and calligraphers in the exhibition, including the “Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty”: Shen Zhou (1427–1509; see his work above), Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), Tang Yin (1470–1524), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). This foursome exemplifies the two main groups of Wu School artists. Tang and Qiu were professional artists who accepted commissions from a range of clients and relied on their work to make a living. Shen and Wen were literati, or gentleman artists, who embraced the Three Perfections as both a personal pastime and a medium of social currency.
At the time, most of China’s professional artists worked in highly polished styles and favored traditional literary and historical subjects, which had wide public recognition and popular appeal. Gentleman artists, on the other hand, largely created works for each other, and their brushwork and themes tended to be more nuanced and personal in nature. Poetry was the primary vehicle of polite social exchange for most literati artists, as well as their preferred form of self-expression. Poems are ubiquitous throughout the exhibition, alternately inspiring, accompanying, and responding to the paintings and calligraphy.