The Wu School rose to its artistic zenith during the first half of the sixteenth century, led by three of its brightest stars: Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), Tang Yin (1470–1524), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). Together with the older Shen Zhou (1427–1509), this group is known as the “Four Great Artists of the Ming.” Shen and Wen exemplified the Wu School ideal of the gentleman artist, while Tang and Qiu epitomized the accomplished Suzhou professional. Qiu was solely a painter; the other three developed distinct styles of painting, calligraphy, and poetry.
Although the Four Great Painters came from different social and economic backgrounds—and more than sixty-five years separated the oldest from the youngest—their lives and art intersected repeatedly. Wen and Tang had been friends since they were teenagers, and they both studied literati painting with Shen. Tang also studied under a local professional painter named Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535), to whom he and Wen later recommended the young painting phenomenon Qiu Ying.
Such teacher-student and patron-client relationships were key to an artist’s development and career in sixteenth-century Suzhou. Wen in particular had both a large number of outstanding students and a wide circle of local connections. Several of Wen’s students and protégés went on to develop careers and styles of their own, among them the two brilliant calligraphers Wang Chong (1494–1533) and Chen Shun (1483–1544), both of whom died before their former master.
Despite their differences in style, approach, and social standing, professional artists and gentleman artists were codependent. Thematically, professional artists drew their material from the literature and history at the core of the literati tradition; in turn, literati artists wrote out the appropriate texts in fine calligraphy to accompany the professional artists’ paintings. A primary distinction between the two groups was that the gentleman artist was also a calligrapher and a poet in his own right, and the fundamental purpose of his art was personal self-expression, usually prompted by an occasion or recent event. In some cases, one gentleman artist might have written a scroll of poetry for a friend or as a calligraphic exercise. Other times, individuals from both groups would collaborate on a scroll or contributed to a collective project.