Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Artworks and Masters – Shen Zhou (沈周/Shen Chou/Qinan)

A Brief Biography of Shen Zhou (沈周/Shen Chou/Qinan)

Shen Zhou was born into a wealthy family of tax collectors, which allowed him to receive a thorough education. Since his family was rich enough to live from its work as tax collectors, Shen did not have to seek for a government post, but could freely devote himself to painting, poetry and traveling. Even after the death of his father, who had been the head of the family, Shen did not strive after an official career, but devoted himself to the care of his mother.

Since his ancestors all had connections to the Ming Dynasty painting circles, he was confronted with the works of famous artists from an early age and imitated their brushstrokes. This was in fact one of his strengths – the ability to paint in the styles of former masters and to reproduce their methods. Shen Zhou would be highly influential for the continuity of Ming Dynasty landscape painting, because he was the first one not to simply copy the works of previous painters, but blend their different styles and combine them harmonically. He also added a personal note to his paintings by combining the arts of painting, poetry and calligraphy altogether in one work. Many of Shen Zhou’s paintings carry inscriptions, often poems.

After his death, Shen Zhou’s approach to landscape painting stayed popular among his students, who founded the Wu School, named after the geographical area Shen Zhou had lived all his life. The Wu School painters, amateur artists who were not members of the Imperial Painting Academy, laid emphasis on individual and expressive styles and the interdependence of poetry, painting and calligraphy.

The Painting of Shen Zhou (沈周/Shen Chou/Qinan)

Being versatile in all different styles of painting, it is hard to say if there was any method Shen Zhou preferred, or to pick one which represents him best. He mastered the styles of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty before he was forty and had a developed a matured style when he was around fifty. Although he mostly painted landscapes, other subjects were also interesting for him. Shen Zhou was the first one to promote the bird and flower genre among his fellow painters, which had been known since the 10th century, but rather been popular among painters of the Academy. One painting style he was known for is the “boneless” method, which means painting without the use of outlines. A picture of a little crab best demonstrates this technique. For this, Shen Zhou used very pale, wet ink, which alone by itself forms the body of the object. He allows the ink to spread on the paper and thus depicts the texture of the rough crab shell. He also uses this method for his bird and flower pictures as well as in landscape paintings for the depiction of far-away mountains. By letting the ink fade from pale grey an almost fainted shade, he indicates distance and depth. It takes a high level of skill and very good knowledge to depict something without a sketch or contours, so Shen Zhou’s “boneless” works are surely a testimony to his painting abilities.