Wu Tao-tzu (ca. 689-c. 758) was a Chinese painter and the most admired figure painter in Chinese history.
Wu Tao-tzu, also called Wu Tao-hsüan, was born in Yang-ti near Loyang, Honan Province, apparently into a family of humble means. He was orphaned and penniless as a boy and may have begun his study of painting under the professional craftsmen employed to decorate Buddhist temples. According to tradition, he also studied calligraphy with the Buddhist monk Chang Hsü, who was famous for his "crazy cursive" script, emphasizing the madly kinesthetic qualities of the brush. Wu is also said to have gained insight into the qualities of movement by observing the famous sword dance of Gen. P'ei Min.
Wu Tao-tzu was summoned to the court by Emperor Hsüan-tsung, the extraordinarily cultured ruler to whose palaces were attracted such a glittering array of poets, painters, calligraphers, and musicians that his reign is remembered as the golden age of Chinese culture. There Wu soon acquired a reputation as the most brilliant and untrammeled painter of the dynasty. His genius was legendary, as was his unruly behavior: "He was fond of wine, which brought forth his spirit; before wielding the brush, he would invariably get drunk." He is known to have painted 300 temple walls in the capital alone and is reported to have executed in a single day a mural depicting a hundred miles of scenery along the Chia-ling River.
The speed and kinesthetic fury of his brush is the significant aspect of Wu Tao-tzu's art. He was among the first painters to develop a fluid, thickening-and-thinning brushline and to describe forms loosely and suggestively. The early history of Chinese figure painting is written in the successive achievements of three masters: Ku K'aichih, whose brushwork was "like silken thread;" Yen Lipen, who painted with "iron-wire line;" and Wu Taotzu, whose fluctuating, graphic brushwork was the first to acquire qualities of its own, separate from the forms it described. The influence of calligraphy, with its actual kinesthetic properties, was crucial to this development. Wu's emphasis on the brush itself was to have profound impact on the later history of painting.
This brilliant age of Chinese history was ended by the disastrous An Lu-shan rebellion of 755. Wu Tao-tzu survived the tragedy, but the last period of his life is unrecorded. The An Lu-shan rebellion was only the first of countless disasters—rebellions, religious persecutions, dynastic collapse—that have destroyed every trace of Wu's art. He is honored by history as the "Sage of Painting," and he commanded an army of followers, but his material legacy consists only of a few engravings of recent centuries, including the Spirit of the Heng Mountains, and a handful of late copies, like the Rulers of Hell in Chicago. They may preserve some idea of the master's work but scarcely its reality.
There is little in English on Wu Tao-tzu. He is discussed in Oswald Siren, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles (7 vols., 1956-1958), and Anil De Silva, The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting (1964).