After the fall of Suzhou in 1367 to the forces of Zhu Yuanzhang, the future first emperor of the Ming dynasty, nearly a century would elapse before that region, known as Wu, emerged as the Ming cultural capital. The artist responsible for what would become known as the Wu School of painters was Shen Zhou (1427–1509). Born to a family of wealthy landowners, Shen did not enter the civil service, as was customary for men of his standing. Instead, he devoted himself to self-cultivation and the arts. He systematically studied the four late Yuan masters—Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng—distilling their diverse idioms into simplified sets of calligraphic conventions that could be shaped into his own personal style.
Shen's most important disciple was Wen Zhengming (1470–1559). The son of a scholar-official of modest means, Wen spent most of his life in Suzhou, where he relied on his art to support himself. He modeled his calligraphy on that of Zhao Mengfu and his painting on that of the four late Yuan masters. While both artists derived inspiration from the same sources, Shen's paintings are exuberant and bold in execution—an approach that was elaborated upon by Xie Shichen—while Wen's are more meticulous and restrained.