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Peter Sturman: “Presenting Mortality: Shen Zhou’s Falling Blossoms Project”

October 10, 2019 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

The renowned artist Shen Zhou (1427–1509) began to explore the theme of falling blossoms as a subject for poetry, painting, and calligraphy in his very late years. Shen’s intention was to record his meditations on the passage of time and human mortality, but the act of writing these verses transformed when Shen shared them with a number of prominent cultural figures in the Jiangnan region. Rhymed by admirers, and then re-rhymed by Shen Zhou, the poems turned into a greater project that ultimately became a highly self-conscious reflection on mortality and its presentation through art.

The lecture focuses on the evolution and scope of Shen Zhou’s Falling Blossoms project, the motivations and concerns behind Shen’s activities as reflected by revealing texts, and the manner in which Shen chose to illustrate the theme in painting. Three paintings— a fan in the Shanghai Museum and hand-scroll compositions in the Nanjing Museum and the National Palace Museum (Taipei)— demonstrate how Shen utilized a rich store of iconographical and stylistic models to establish the theme of contemplating mortality. The lecture ends with consideration of a very late composition, Shen’s 1507 rendition of Misty River, Layered Peaks (Liaoning Provincial Museum), an ambitious painting that seemingly voices a defiant resolution to some of the existential questions posed by Shen’s Falling Blossoms.


Peter Sturman is a professor in the Department of History of Art & Architecture at UC Santa Barbara.

This program is a part of the Borghesi-Mellon Interdisciplinary Workshops in the Humanities, sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with support from Nancy and David Borghesi and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


October 10, 2019
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
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Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, Room L150
800 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706 United States
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