A scholar attended by servant bearing a ch’in lute pause on a mountain path beneath autumn trees, the leaves of which are either gone or changed to colors. In the middle distance, beyond a band of mist, appears an extensive villa placed hard against the steeply rising mountain. The scene very effectively evokes the season and also a bit of the melancholic mood of that time of year.
Chu Wen-chen was born in Li-ch’eng, Shantung province, and grew up as an impoverished orphan. Early on Chu became fascinated with calligraphy and seal-carving, visiting the Confucian shrine in Ch’u-fu in order to study the early stele there. Traveling then to the capital in Peking, he came to the attention of the Manchu prince Yun-hsi (d. 1748); Chu later carved a personal seal reading “Student of Tzu-ch’iung (Yun-hsi).” That friendship gained Chu access to various collections and allowed him to develop his knowledge of early calligraphy and seals; eventually Chu became a collector of seals himself. Becoming a student at the National University, probably under the sponsorship of Yun-hsi, Chu graduated and served as Vice-prefect of Lung-chou in Kuang- hsi province.
Primarily through his talent in the various arts, Chu came to know a wide range of officials, scholars, poets, and artists. In painting he was particularly close to Cheng Hsieh, who painted for Chu and referred to him as a student, and to Yuan Mei, with whom he stayed at the Sui-yuan garden. In emulation of Wu Wei-yeh, who wrote of his “Ten Friends in Painting,” Chu composed his song of “Ten Sages of Painting,” including: Kao Hsiang, Kao Feng-han, Li Shih-cho, Yun-hsi, Chang P’eng-ch’ung, Li Shih-cho, Tung Pang-ta, Wang Yen-ko, Ch’en Chia-tung, and Chang Shih-ying. It is noteworthy that some of these artists are also included among the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangchou,” while others were very orthodox in painting style, suggesting that Chu Wen-chen could appreciate talent and vision however these manifested themselves.
The birth and death dates of Chu Wen-chen are not recorded, but his known paintings range in date between 1740 and 1777, suggesting a career that lasted for thirty-seven years. One literary source records that he died at age sixty sui, which suggests, if the latest dated painting is genuine, and if he died shortly thereafter, that Chu would have been born in 1718.