The “Four Wangs” refer to four acclaimed Chinese landscape painters that lived in the late Ming and early Qing periods and have the same surname. These highly influential painters in the community of traditional Chinese artists consist of Wang Shimin, Wang Jian, Wang Hui, and Wang Yuanqi.
Known for their style of “orthodox” or traditional Chinese painting, their artworks depict sceneries and natural landscapes. They usually painted mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, making use of only brush and ink that were more commonly used for writing during their time rather than conventional paint.
The painters were considered as “orthodox” painters since based on the Confucian philosophy, their style didn’t stray from the traditional art modes which became a huge contrast to a group of Individualist painters, like Shitao, at the time.
As a master of texture shading, Wang Yianqi was known for his strong brushwork and contemplative compositions, as seen in his paintings. Throughout his life, he worked as a court official and rose up the ranks as an appointed curator of the imperial collection during the reign of Kangxi Emperor.
His landscapes followed the model of the Yuan Dynasty artists who strayed away from the Northern Song tradition that was focused on realistic depictions of subjects in paintings to more “personal abstractions.” His style and technique reflected that of his major influences like Huang Gongwang. He used dry brush strokes, ink washes, and of color.
This painter even developed what became known as the Loudong school with adherents,and led the formation of the Yushan school with his successors.
Born in an artistic and scholarly environment, Wang Shimin was able to learn painting and calligraphy at a young age as a pupil of Dong Qichang. He drew inspiration from his family’s vast collection of ancient paintings. Although passionate about the arts, he eventually worked as a government official. Upon falling ill during a trip to Nanjing, he resigned, secluded himself in the suburbs of Taichang, and dedicated his time to creating numerous artworks.
Of the four Wangs, he studied the method of Huang Gongwang but was able to develop his own style and technique. During this time, he and his closest friend, Wang Jian, taught Wang Hui to paint.
Wang Hui is known for his academic and pedestrian paintings, combining the works of the masters he admired and the Wangs who taught him, eventually excelling in and mastering his own skill. He, too, painted landscapes like the rest of the Wangs, but were more detailed due to his “intense observations” of nature and his intense handling of the brushstroke rhythms and textures that “yields a dense and detailed unity without losing the composition’s clarity or meaning.”
Wang Hui’s fame reached the court of Beijing, and he was given the opportunity to supervise the production of a series of purposeful handscrolls.
Little may be known of Wang Jian’s background but the painter is known to be one of the closest friends of Wang Shimin since they lived in the same hometown and studied art together under Dong Qichang.
Wang Jian’s landscape paintings are mostly resemble and follow the styles of Song and Yuan masters, tracing certain artistic styles. He excelled in both ink monochrome and polycrome ink and color paintings, forming his own style.
Want to learn more about Chinese painters? Check out our article on Li Shuang, the intellectual modern artist of China.