Chen Shu (1660-1735) was born into an elite family in Jiaxing, China and was the daughter of an artist. This allowed her to study painting as a young girl, despite the mixed feelings about women’s education at the time that kept only a few women of the elite from pursuing an education. Chen Shu studied art and the classics and was able to help her family by selling her paintings and tutoring in painting as well as teaching her own children. Much of her work focused on flowers and birds, such as her iconic work “White Cockatoo” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Later in her life, Chen Shu’s art focused primarily on landscapes, which were rare from women artists as they were unable to travel as often as men. For this reason, Chen Shu studied landscape paintings by male artists. It was popular for literati painters of the time to reference famous artists in their work, creating works in the artist’s style and using similar subject matter. While she referenced other (typically male) artists, she incorporated her own style and her works lead to the beginning of the Xiushui School painting style.
Famous in her own right for her artistic works, Chen Shu was also the mother of Qing stateman and poet Qian Chenqun. After the early death of her husband, she raised her son on her own and when he joined the court of the Qianlong Emperor, he introduced the emperor to his mother’s paintings. Chen Shu became a favorite of the emperor and many of her works are included in the imperial collection today.
“Reading the I-ching in a Mountain Study”
Marsha Smith Weidner, “Flowering in the Shadows: Women in the History of Chinese and Japanese Painting.” (University of Hawaii Press, 1990)
Marsha Smith Weidner, “Views from the Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists, 1300-1912” (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1988)