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明 沈周 《春行訪友圖》 卷

A Spring Gathering

Painting: Expecting Visitors

Sitting on a simple frame chair, a robed and hooded gentleman sits in the doorway of a modest studio or residence; a serving boy stands beside him holding a scroll. Together, they await visitors. One robed figure bearing a walking stick has moored his boat at a nearby islet or promontory and is approaching across a footbridge. Steered on the current by a young man, a second robed and hooded gentleman arrives by boat, bringing a travel box of food and perhaps some wine. Presumably, the three men intend to enjoy a convivial afternoon together. Low-lying mist covers the water and obscures the lower slopes of distant hills. The pale green willows and blossoming peach trees indicate that the season is early spring, and judging from the hoods, the temperature is still rather chilly.

As we open the scroll, the background landscape recedes from right to left, from near and large to small and far, while the human activity in the foreground proceeds in the opposite direction (left to right, far to near). This clever compositional device creates a dramatic sense of expectation. When we first see the man and servant in the doorway, we do not know what they are looking at or why they are there. By the end of the painting, we understand that they are waiting for guests to arrive. And as we follow the guests to their destination, we understand the anticipation they all feel as eagerly awaited events begin to unfold. The painting is a prelude to the main event, as the get-together has yet to begin.

In his short inscription at upper left, Shen Zhou dedicated this painting to Hua Fang 華方 (1407–1477), also known by his cognomen (hao 號) Shiji 時葺. Hua belonged to a prominent wealthy clan from the Ehu district of Wuxi in Jiangsu province (江蘇省無錫市鹅湖鎮), located just north of Suzhou in the rich paddy lands between the two cities. In an act of charity (for which he was well known), Hua had reclaimed land after a devastating flood and eased the tax burden on the local population. He may be the figure seated inside the pavilion.


As usual, Shen Zhou seamlessly combined a number of techniques and influences in his painting. Complementing the spring season, he used a light blue-and-green palette that simultaneously looked back to seventh- and eighth-century Tang dynasty sources and foreshadowed similar landscapes by sixteenth-century Wu School followers. Shen evenly applied green wash to the foreground, modulated with clusters of light blue or dark black “moss dots” that define and contour the landforms. In contrast, he rendered the background hills using light blue wash and layered, horizontal daubs made with the flat of the brush, reviving the Mi-family style developed during the eleventh century. That style largely had been neglected until Gao Kegong 高克恭 (1248–1310) in the early Yuan, who may have been Shen Zhou’s more immediate inspiration.


During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), especially in Suzhou, gardens and estates were symbols of personal cultivation, wealth, and social status. Many artists honored their patrons by situating them in a garden studio, a comment on the subject’s nobility and aesthetic taste. Here, Shen depicted Hua as a traditional scholar-gentleman living in idyllic retirement, with friends dropping by for a social gathering.

The painting isn’t a literal description either of Hua and his property or of a particular occasion. It was more important for Shen to capture Hua’s character and depict him as an amiable and cultivated host than to provide a realistic portrayal. Although there are locations around Wuxi where hills come down to Lake Tai, as in the painting, and wealthy families such as Hua’s may have owned land near the water, the scene probably is entirely fanciful.

Interesting Fact

The Qianlong emperor (reigned 1735–96) clearly admired this work. Along with numerous collector seals, the emperor added a calligraphic frontispiece to the scroll, plus three poetic inscriptions (written in 1765, 1782, and 1791) across the top of the painting, and a fourth poetic inscription (1793) on the mounting.


明 沈周 《行楷書書 支硎山麓逢楊君謙》 卷
Running into Yang Junqian at the foot of Mount Zhixing, in running-standard script
Shen Zhou (1427–1509)
China, Ming dynasty, 1491


A previous collector attached a separate, unrelated calligraphy by Shen Zhou to the left of the painting. The text is an original eight-line poem in seven-character meter. As Shen explained in the lengthy postscript that follows, he wrote the poem in March 1491 after encountering the poet, calligrapher, and scholar Yang Junqian (or Yang Xunji 楊循吉, 1456–1544) while hiking on Mount Zhixing (Grindstone Hill), a popular sightseeing destination west of Suzhou. A resident of Wuxian 吳縣 (modern Suzhou), Yang had retired from a brief official career in 1486 and built himself a retreat at the foot of Mount Zhixing, where he devoted himself to writing and study. After composing the poem for Yang, Shen sent it for comment to their mutual friend Xingfu (or Zhu Cunli 朱存理, 1444–1513). Zhu Cunli also inscribed Shen Zhou’s album leaf and is the subject of painting by Qiu Ying.

At a wooded gorge I met him coming out of the setting sun
By his stride not an official, I thought him an immortal
His bamboo hat braving the clouds is fit for me to paint
Truly a monk shall engrave my little poem on a grindstone
At scenic spots on the mountain he pauses his sedan chair
His eyes fall leisurely, sleeves hang over the plaited sides
Behind him comes a porter who’s also quite extraordinary
A flower basket and wine cask dangle at the ends of his pole

On the twenty-first day of the second lunar month in the xinhai year [March 30, 1491], I was climbing Zhixing when among the hidden depths of its wooded slopes I spied a gentleman wearing a straw hat and carrying a scroll, who was riding in a bamboo sedan chair and coming east. When he got close, I saw that it was Yang Junqian [formerly] of the Department of Ceremonies, but since it was pushing on to dusk, we barely had time to wave before parting. The next day, I was thinking of painting his lofty presence and I composed a poem to accompany it, which I am sending first to Xingfu for his correction. Shen Zhou


明 文徵明 《行書書 》 卷
Remembering Shen Zhou
Wen Zhengming (1470–1559)
China, Ming dynasty, 1545

Attached to the left of Shen Zhou’s calligraphy is a long colophon by Wen Zhengming, Shen’s most important student, written in memory of his teacher. The colophon comprises four short poems and a postscript in running script.

Elder Stone’s lofty character appears in his brushwork
Easy-going in his mindset as the leisurely white clouds
Do not expect him to do a work that looks like Yuanhui
He paints in his own way the Wumen Mountains after rain

Where in Wumen is it as drenched and drippy as this ink?
The most extraordinary are the Western Hills after rain
Who could capture such a passage of picturesque terrain?
There are a thousand years of poems in Mojie’s painting

In those years his poetry was called earnest and sincere
Late in life, what a pity, painting would eclipse its fame
World affairs are uncertain, who knows how things will go
White-headed, his old student feels mortified and ashamed

Lofty man, do you not see Shen Xiuwen?
At Fisherman Sands, how many times has twilight come?
I look with tears on the broken ink and ruined silk
Azure hills a thousand-fold enveloped in sad clouds

Mister Stone Field [Shen Zhou] was a person of lofty character, his literary works were observant and farsighted, and his knowledge was particularly profound. [Even those works] produced in his spare time as entertainment for an outing definitely were not something that any ordinary workman or common artisan could achieve . . . Late in life, he acquired a stencil copy (lit.: “powder version”) of a work in thirteen sections by Ministry of State Affairs Gao [Gao Kegong高克恭, 1248–1310] . . . and the works that [Shen] painted at the time as good as surpassed [Gao’s], such as the handscroll here. Jiajing reign period, yisi [year], third lunar-month, thirteenth day [April 23, 1545], inscribed by [Wen] Zhengming

明 沈周 《春行訪友圖》 卷
A Spring Gathering

Shen Zhou (1427–1509)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1480?
Handscroll; ink and color on paper
Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art F1934.1

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