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Chinese Painters: Shitao, the Individualistic Painter

As one of the most famous individualist painters in Chinese history, Shitao is known for his revolutionary paintings and unique style. His works are inspired by nature and his lifetime of wandering.

Humble beginnings

The Chinese painter Shitao was born in 1642 in Quanzhou County in Guangxi province. He was a member of the Ming royal house descended from the elder brother of Zhu Yuanzhang. But when the Ming Dynasty fell due to the invading Manchus and civil rebellion, he narrowly escaped, went with the name Yuanji Shitao, and became a Buddhist monk.

Shitao lived as a monk nearly his entire life, moving from one province to another in search of a patron. When he failed, he converted to Taoism and returned to Yangzhou only to support himself through his paintings.


His paintings

Inspired by his life-long experience of visiting different places, his paintings reflect his travels and dwellings in mountains and lakes. The white space in his paintings put the subjects into focus while suggesting distance. Shitao did not just limit his masterpieces to paintings but included poetry and calligraphy to accompany the landscape. 

Shitao’s paintings emphasize his style of using washes and bold, impressionistic brushstrokes. Although he has been able to develop his own style of painting, he took inspiration from old orthodox masters and predecessors while respecting them and learning painting techniques from their paintings. 

Shitao eventually became one of the most famous individualist painters of the early Qing dynasty. His art was eventually considered “revolutionary” because of its distinct contrast to his contemporaries.


For more on Chinese painters, check out our article on Qi Baishi, a master at age 27, here.

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