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Wang Fu
Ming Dynasty painter, calligrapher and poet
Chinese, (1362–1416) zi: Mengduan hao: Youshi
Chinese painter, calligrapher and poet. Following early promise as a painter and poet, Wang Fu passed the provincial examinations—the second stage in the civil service examination ladder—to receive his juren degree in 1376. He went to Nanjing soon after to take up a government post, but in 1380 was banished to the northern frontier, near Datong, Shanxi Province, as the result of alleged political activity against the Ming (1368–1644) government. For the next 20 years Wang served as a frontier guard, after which he returned to the south to paint and write. From 1403 to 1412 he worked as a calligrapher in the imperial palace at Nanjing, and in 1414 he went to Beijing to join the Central Draughting Office; he died there two years later.

Accounts of Wang’s character and artistic skill have the ring of conventional formulae. It is said that he painted infrequently, while travelling and often when drunk. In spite of his reputation for eccentricity, his extant works reveal a diligent hand and serious application to his art. In his Butianji (1574/R Shanghai, 1910) Wen Zhengming wrote:

The quality of his painting is above [mere] competence; the critics say that the artisan’s [technique] and the scholar’s spirit are both provided by his works. His personal quality was superior, and he was not used by his art. He would not give away even his small works to anyone whom he did not consider to be the right kind of man.

Wang Fu is best known for his landscapes and bamboo, both typical subjects of literati painters. In painting bamboo, Wang followed the style of Wu zhen, one of the Four Great Masters of the Yuan period (1279–1368). Wan zhu qiu shen (‘Ten thousand bamboos in late autumn’; long handscroll, 1410; Washington, DC, Freer) is one of his best works. The plants are arranged along the length of the handscroll in a free and natural manner, thick stalks running the full height of the scroll, dark leaves clustered in a rhythmic series, sometimes at the base, sometimes at the uppermost edge.

Wang Fu’s landscapes were frequently painted either to commemorate a particular event or to repay the generosity of a host. One such example, "River Landscape in the Manner of Ni Zan" (1401; private collection), was a parting present for Wu Shunmin, a friend with whom Wang had stayed. They had not met for ten years, and Wang composed a poem for the work to ‘express the emotions of parting’. Ni zan’s spare, dry style is ideal for the sense of nostalgia and impending loneliness or distance one would expect on such an occasion, as well as being a tribute to his friend’s sensitivity and taste.

"Thatched Pavilion in Mist-filled Trees" uses a more elaborate version of the Ni Zan style, although the composition—thatched pavilion beside tall trees in the foreground, an expanse of water and a distant range of mountains—is reduced to its essential elements, painted with an even greater economy than Ni Zan’s own work. In this example, a scholar sits in the pavilion beneath three deciduous trees that have already lost leaves. The influence of Huang gongwang is evident in the stringlike cun (‘texture strokes’) applied to the mountains in the background. The style and technique of the painting recall the masters of the Yuan period (1279–1368) and convey a sense of solitude. It is a brilliant variation on a theme, at once finely rendered and deeply moving. In his imitations of Yuan painters Wang Fu exemplifies the institutionalization of imitation, which was to become characteristic of literati painters of the Ming period.

-Vyvyan Brunst and James Cahill

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