Chinese Paintings – Classical

The Legacy of Wen Zhengming Seen in the Calligraphy of Two Sons

By Sotheby's

C ultivation of the inner life and moral nature is the ultimate purpose of the gentleman scholar. In Chinese art, creating beauty in a work is secondary to the capturing of an essential spirit of nature and philosophy. Thus, the time-honoured artistic and literary tradition calligraphy is far more than ‘beautiful writing’. It is artistic conception at its highest form, a spiritual expression of the scholar-artist.

Two works by the brothers Wen Peng (1497-1573) and Wen Jia (1501-1583) will be offered at the upcoming auction of Fine Classical Chinese Paintings (12 October, Hong Kong). They were the sons of Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) one of the leading literati-painters of the 16th century. With each brushstroke, we can imagine how it might reveal aspects of the Wen brothers – their styles, literary forebears, and connoisseurship, as well as how they carried the weight of their father’s legacy.

Wen Zhengming found success later in life, initially disappointed in his pursuit of a career as a scholar official. Studying under the legendary Shen Zhou (1427–1509), founder of the Wu School, Wen Zhenming devoted himself to the life of a literati-scholar, immersed in painting and calligraphy. He mastered various styles of painting and created an innovative approach to calligraphy. Thus, he and emerged as the leading figure of the school, with influence that was unrivalled during this time.

He taught his sons Wen Peng (1497-1573) and Wen Jia (1501-1583) painting and calligraphy at an early age, exposing them to famous masterpieces of painting and calligraphy. While the father fostered the artistic development of the sons, they sought their father’s approval through their own progress in the art. The brothers would study the calligraphy of ancient masters by carving them on stone boards or steles, and then make rubbings of these. After Wen Zhengming’s death, they took up the mantle of the Wu school.

Wen Peng was eldest son of the family. Like his father, he was an exceptional poet, painter, calligrapher, and connoisseur, with a particular talent for seal carving. Despite this, he was also a later bloomer, without much early success in his official career until he reached the age of 60, when he was recommended for the Ministry of Rites examination. He scored first in the exam and finally became a Scholar at the Imperial Academy in Nanjing. Perhaps the most talented of Wen Zhengming’s sons, Wen Peng was best known for his cursive script and seal carving. He was deeply inspired by Tang dynasty Huai Su’s Autobiography, which he was able to study first hand, copying the calligraphy from the age of 33 . This would remain an influence in his own subsequent work.

Created in 1570, this current work of calligraphy is one of Wen Peng’s later works. He allowed a measure of freedom with swift, flowing brushwork that would create a pleasingly asymmetrical effect. The National Palace Museum’s collection has a similar work of Wen Peng – his Seven-Character Regulated Verse; both were written in the same year. Observing the characters, one can see that some are larger by two or three times others. This structure and arrangement of references Huai Su’s Autobiography. Wen Peng’s skilful work is a clear extension of calligraphies expressed by both his father and Huai Su (737-799). The great Ming dynasty literatus Chen Jiru (1558-1639) praised this piece at the level of Su Dongpo’s calligraphy and expressed his admiration with a postscript on this work.

Wu Hufan, one of the most prominent connoisseurs of Chinese art in the early 20th century, also appreciated Wen Peng's talent – comparing the verve from his cursive script calligraphy with Cai Xiang, and semi-cursive script on par with Zhao Mengfu. Wu said that Wen Peng's ability, in fact, surpassed Wen Zhengming but was overshadowed by the father's illustrious reputation.

Wen Jia was the second son who may be better known for his landscape painting and poetry than his calligraphy. However, with his background and innate ability, Wen Jia also excelled at calligraphy and had an eye for appreciating the art form. However talented he was, the fact was overshadowed by the fame of his father and his elder brother, and as a result, Wen Jia's accomplishments were scarcely mentioned in historical records.

This work of running-script calligraphy shows how Wen Jia’s carried on of his family legacy. This is one of his early works, an inscription made after viewing Cao Ba’s original painting Zhi Dun Evaluating a Horse. Wen Zhengming’s large character works – such as Self-Composed Poems currently in the collection of the National Palace Museum – provide some clues about Wen Jia’s inspiration. Although there are some of Wen Jia's works on the market, such a large work of his calligraphy is rare to see in the market or in museums.

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