Chinese Literati Painting -- Page 9

    The fruition of literati painting in the early Ming -- Shen Zhou

By the time the Yuan emperors were driven from China in 1368, and a new dynasty under Chinese rulers established -- the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) -- literati painting was a firm tradition.  Literati paintings were prized above academic paintings by most educated people, who understood their goal of revealing the inner character of the painter and communicating, through depictions of nature, man, or objects, virtues, strength of purpose, and sensitivity towards the conditions of human life.

So important had painting become, that some literati chose to focus their entire lives on mastery of the art, rather than pursuing government careers, even though their rulers were no longer alien to China.  In the increasingly urban and educated society of Ming China, these men actually made considerable income from their work, either in the form of cash "gifts" or of other goods "traded" for their art.  Literati circles at the highest levels often included among a group of close friends (who, acting as a mutual support group, were often a force to be reckoned with in local society and politics) painters who would inspire group activities the way that premier poets did.  In fact, poetry and painting began increasingly to overlap.  Often literati painters would present paintings to friends with the invitation to write on them poetry and short essays.   In this way, paintings sometimes seem to become more group expressions than mere individual expressions of the painter, capturing an essential Confucian element of sociality.

One of the most famous of all literati painters was Shen Zhou (1427-1509), who lived on China's east coast, not far from the modern Shanghai region.  Over the next few pages, we view some of Shen Zhou's paintings, looking at them as a kind of summation of many aspects of literati painting.  We will then close by looking at one work by a student of Shen Zhou's.

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Portrait of Shen Zhou

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