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明 沈周 《竹林茅屋圖》 卷

Studio in a Bamboo Grove

Painting: Away From It All

Located on a small island, three rustic buildings surrounded by bamboo serve as a lakeside dwelling or studio for a solitary gentleman. He is seated on the floor in front of a tall calligraphy screen with books and a qin (zither or lute) before him. We can imagine that the figure is an idealized image of the artist himself. The place feels remote, far from the world and its concerns. A simple footbridge leads from the back to a winding path, which snakes along the opposite shore to an open-sided pavilion.

Shen Zhou was a native of Xiangcheng, around ten miles north of Suzhou proper. Sometime during the 1460s, he built himself a studio-residence near his old family home, naming it the Bamboo Dwelling (Youzhuju 有竹居). The painting may represent that private abode, where he spent much of his life and received numerous scholarly and artistic visitors, especially from the nearby city.

Although the scroll is not signed or dated, Shen’s seal is at lower left, and the coloring and brushwork style are distinctly his. The seal reads Baishi weng (Old Man White Stone), a moniker he started using in 1486, his sixtieth year. Compared to his other works from that period, this painting’s smooth, confident execution suggests Shen made it slightly later, perhaps around 1490, on the cusp of his fully mature style.


Shen inscribed an original poem in seven-character meter on an attached piece of paper. “The gentleman” refers to bamboo, the favorite plant of recluses and retirees.

The gentleman has special scorn for nobles who eat meat
Clear and slender he just wants to get clear and tall
One must also wait to lean upon his cane of purple jade
He seems to be unable to bear his green phoenix robes
Asking doctors where he goes it is not a common ailment
His suffering in former times is why his poem is sad
Hollow is the belly of each emerald and beryl stalk
Just so, along the Wei River a thousand acres of autumn

To the left of Shen’s text is a poem signed by his friend Wang Ao (1450–1524) of Thunder Marsh, another name for Lake Tai outside Suzhou. Wang was born into a peasant family that lived on the lakeshore. Taking advantage of opportunities to acquire an education, he passed the national jinshi examinations in 1475, third in his class, and was appointed to the imperial Hanlin Academy in the capital. He pursued a successful official career and rose to the highest echelons of government before being allowed to retire to his home in 1509—with special favors from the emperor, including a generous stipend of rice and eight attendants. Wang was a fine calligrapher and poet, a shrewd statesman known for his honesty and candor, and an important patron of artists and literati, especially from his native Suzhou.

I’ve heard that when you plant this gentleman
If you eat it, you can do without any meat
It rustles on the banks of the imperial canal
Travelers liken it to the groves at Qi and Ao
I would not grudge a thousand ounces of gold
To procure just a single bundle of such jade
Within the hut there seems to be some fellow
Who spends all day reading at his hidden desk
If you’re not familiar with the man in the hut
Observe the bamboo that grows before his hall

明 沈周 《竹林茅屋圖》 卷
Studio in a Bamboo Grove

Shen Zhou (1429–1507)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1490
Handscroll; ink and color on paper
Gift of Arthur M. Sackler
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1987.225

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