In Chinese history, three people are adored as sages. They are the calligraphy sage Wang Xizhi of the West Jin Dynasty (265-316), the poem sage Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty and the painting sage Wu Daozi, also of the Tang Dynasty.
Born in Yangzhai (present-day Yu County in Henan Province), Wu lost both his parents when he was young and lived a hard life in his early years. He learned from folk artists and sculptors how to make a living. Because he studied hard and was talented in art, he earned himself a good reputation as a painter by the time he was 20 years old. Emperor Xuanzong invited him to become an imperial painter in court and changed his name to Daoxuan. As an imperial painter, he was not allowed to paint except on the emperor’s orders. It was a big restriction for a civilian painter, but on the other hand, life in court provided the best conditions for living and artistic creativity.
Wu’s character was unrestrained, direct and indifferent to trivial matters. It is known that he always drank when painting. There are many stories about him and his paintings. It is said that when he drew the halo surround the Buddha’s head for a mural, he used only his brushes without drafting the measurements first and that, when he went to the Longxing Temple to paint, the temple was packed with people. Wu moved his brush quickly when he painted and most of his works were accomplished in a single session. Chang’an (present-dayXi’an), capital of the Tang Dynasty, was the cultural center at that time, and many famous men of letters and artists lived there. Wu Daozi had many opportunities to stay with them, which helped him improve his painting skills. Once he met his calligraphy teacher, Zhang Xu, and a general in Luoyang. The general practiced fencing with quick movements and much skill. Inspired by him, Wu drew an extempore mural on the wall of the Tiangong Temple. He painted so quickly that his brush seemed to fly, and the sound of the moving brushstroke could be heard. After Wu finished his painting, Zhang Xu also wrote calligraphy on the wall. Those present were amazed, because they received the rare opportunity of seeing three great talents in one day.
On another occasion, Emperor Xuanzong wanted to see the scenery of the Jialing River and sent Wu Daozi there to make sketches of the river. When Wu came back, he asked for a bolt of silk and drew the 150-kilometer landscape of the Jialing River in one day in the Datong Hall. Emperor Xuanzong continually sighed in admiration at this work, since it was as beautiful as the painting by another imperial painter, Li Sixun, which took several months to finish.
Wu Daozi created many art works in his life. According to records, he painted over 300 murals and more than 100 scrolls. Many of them were on Buddhist and Taoist topics but he also drew mountains and rivers and flowers and birds. Unfortunately none of them is preserved. There is a Song Dynasty copy of his The Presentation of Buddha. It portrays the Buddhist story of how Sakyamuni’s father, holding his son to his chest, thanked the Buddhist Gods after the baby’s birth.
The painting demonstrates Wu Daozi’s basic painting style. Unlike his predecessors, Gu Kaizhi and Lu Tanhui, whose stroke lines were slender and forceful but lacked variety, Wu’s strokes were full of changes and vigor, expressing the internal world of the characters. Wu used simple colors or none at all. He was always in great ferment when he was painting, and his works exhibit an expressionist style.