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明 沈周 《策杖攜琴圖》 冊頁

Walking by a Mountain Stream

Painting: Seeking Musical Inspiration

Strolling with a walking stick along a mountain stream, a robed gentleman leisurely approaches a low bridge. Following him is a serving boy clasping a wrapped qin 琴 (zither or lute), the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar. The man may be heading toward the simple pavilion across the water, hoping to find inspiration for his upcoming musical performance in its vista.

Private outings for aesthetic and artistic purposes are a recurrent theme in Chinese poetry and painting. Such excursions also are a hallmark of the recluse or gentleman in retirement who seeks to live in harmony with the natural order. Shen Zhou, considered the founder of the Wu School, personified the ideals and lifestyle of the gentleman-recluse. This image therefore serves as both an anonymous archetype that viewers could readily understand and Shen’s direct projection of himself.


Shen Zhou first defined the landforms with light ink outlines, then filled them in with gray wash and slightly darker vertical and slanting lines. A restrained use of color includes a little light orange but mainly light blue. Tight clusters of dots, flicks, or crisscross lines represent clumps of vegetation. Bearing four different kinds of leaves, the trees reflect Shen’s special care.

Around age sixty, Shen Zhou took serious interest in the style of Huang Gongwang 黄公望 (1269–1354), a Yuan dynasty painter and recluse, whose techniques are reflected in this work. In August–September 1487, Shen produced a masterful copy of Huang’s long handscroll painting Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (富春山居圖); in 1488, he copied two more works by the earlier master. Though this work is undated, Shen probably painted it during this period of his artistic development, an assessment supported by the 1489 date accompanying the inscription added by one of his younger contemporaries.


Wu Yi 吳弈 (1472–1519) was a nephew—and, later, an heir—of the high government official and poet Wu Kuan 吳寬 (1435–1504) (see F1980.11), a good friend of Shen Zhou’s. Born in Changzhou 長洲 (modern Suzhou), Wu Yi had the wealth and family connections necessary to enter the city’s elite literati and artistic circles as a young man. He was only seventeen when he inscribed this poem (second from left) on Shen’s work in 1489.

The thatch-roofed hut shuts out the day
Free and easy he sits there a long time
As he grasps his simple lute and plays
The wind on the river speeds his hands
Second year of the Hongzhi reign period, winter, tenth lunar month [October 24–November 22, 1489], Wu Yi

Zhu Cunli 朱存理 (1444–1513), a well-regarded poet, bibliophile, and connoisseur of painting and calligraphy, wrote the poem at far left. Also from Changzhou 長洲 (modern Suzhou), Zhu compiled a detailed catalogue of works he had seen and the inscriptions and colophons attached to them—the first of its kind. Despite his artistic interests, Zhu evidently was quite nearsighted, and he did not sit for the examinations or seek an official career. He was very fond of music played on the qin (zither, or lute), and he counted many of the elite artists and scholars of Suzhou as friends and admirers, including Shen Zhou and Wu Kuan.

Clouds white, mountains blue, and green tree shadows
Fallen flowers deep in the flowing waters of a brook
Finding yourself under trees, nothing you have to do
Play a jasper lute at ease, soothe your simple heart

明 沈周 《策杖攜琴圖》 冊頁
Walking by a Mountain Stream

Shen Zhou (1427–1509)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89
Album leaf; ink and color on paper
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art F1911.163o

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