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Best known by his courtesy name Zhengming rather than his original name Bi, Wen Zhengming was a native of Changzhou (today's Suzhou, Jiangsu province). He started reading poetry and literary classics at a very early age and developed exceptional interest in calligraphy and painting. His calligraphy followed the style of Li Yingzhen (1431-1439), his essay writing took inspiration from Wu Kuan (1435-1504) and his painting was modeled on Shen Zhou (1427-1509). Wen's efforts at a bureaucratic career were ill-fated as he failed ten times the civil service recruitment examination. His last try at the age of fifty-three was twentry-seven years after his first failure. The next year, at the age of fifty-four, he was finally recommended and appointed to a post in the Hanlin Academy. He stayed for three years before retirement at the age of fifty-seven, and then returned home immersing himself in calligraphy and painting.
The subjects of his paintings range from landscapes, bamboo, and orchid to figures, and birds and flowers, among which landscape paintings are the most magnificent. His brushwork features two distinct styles: a rough and unrestrained approach that mirrors his understanding of Shen Zhou, Wu Zhen (1280-1354) and Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) to outline the spaces and trees, rocks and bamboos; and a refined, less-spacious approach to depict details and delicate forms. The latter became a feature of "Wu school" painting. Considered a "Wu school" master, Wen joined Shen Zhou, Tang Yin (1470-1523), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1505-1552) as the "Four Masters of the Wu School".
The work is another visualization of the famous anecdote about the "Sage of Calligraphy" Wang Xizhi and a well-known gathering at the Orchid Pavilion. According to an old Chinese exorcism ritual of purification (xiuxi), on the third day of the third lunar month friends gather near water drink wine from cup that flow along the water in order to expel bad luck of the coming year. During the purification ritual in 353, Wang and forty-one friends drank wine and wrote poems to each others at the Orchid Pavilion. In an exceptionally mellow mood driven by friendship and wine, Wang wrote a preface for the day's poems describing the event. It turned out to be an ineffable calligraphic masterpiece, an epic work that Wang later admitted he was never able to repeat. The scene of this gathering was depicted countless times by painters over the centuries.
This work was done when Wen was seventy-three. Adopting the blue-and-green landscape technique, the painter outlined and then rendered the trees and stones in the background with refined brush strokes, and portrayed the faces and draperies with simple and expressive lines. The coloring appears bright and rich in variety, with blue and green as main tones and light ochre as a decorative color for the stones at the foothills. It's elegance has a colorful vivacity.
At the end of the scroll are two artist's seals, "Zhengming" and "Seal of Zhengzhongfu". Various collectors' seals can be seen at the bottom corners of the painting. At the beginning and end of the calligraphy is Wen's transcription of Wang Xizhi's Preface for the Orchid Pavilion Gathering. It was followed by other artists' colophons such as Wang Guxiang, Lu Shidao (Wen's student), Xu Chu, Wen Peng (1498-1573, Wen's elder son), Wen Jia (1501-1583, Wen's younger son), and Zhou Fuhou.