Wu Tao-tzu was one of the most talented painters of the Tang Dynasty. He is to China what Michelangelo is to Italy. The main difference is that while we have many extant works by Michelangelo, the fame of the artist rests mainly on a few copies of his work and his extraordinary legend. He is said to have painted over 300 murals and innumerable scrolls in his lifetime, none of them survive today.
Wu Tao-tzu was born in 689 A.D., in Yang-ti, which is in the Honan Province of China. It seems he came from a very poor background and was orphaned at quite an early age.
Cast out into the world alone, he had to struggle to survive. He had a natural aptitude for art and found a position as an apprentice with artisans working on the local Buddhist temples. He is supposed to have undergone training in calligraphy under Chang Hsu, a Buddhist monk and famous calligrapher.
Wu Tao-tzu flourished as an artist and quickly surpassed his teachers. Soon, the news of his talent reached Emperor Hsuan-tsung and he summoned the young man, then about 25 years old, to the court in Ch'ang-an. Wu Tao-tzu was given the pleasant, profitable, and not too wearisome task of teaching art to the Court Ladies. In his own time, he continued with his work and also continued painting Buddhist religious murals on the temple and monastery walls.
The reign of Emperor Hsuan-tsung is considered to be the high mark of cultural achievement of the Tang Dynasty. He was a great patron of art, and his court was filled with a glittering array of the best Chinese artists, writers, poets, and musicians of the period.
This was exactly the sort of atmosphere required to bring the young artist's genius to full bloom. He was a person who made his own rules to a large extent. He liked alcohol and believed it assisted his work―it is said that he always got drunk before embarking on a new painting, and then he worked in a mad fury, 'with the force of a whirlwind', as Robert Payne mentions. To people watching, it seemed as though an entire picture appeared by magic, always with an exquisite calligraphic delicacy of line and form; they could never figure out how he did it. This led to rumors about magical powers and Wu Tao-tzu, who wasn't into step-by-step explanations, became a legend in his own lifetime.
He found immense favor with Emperor Hsuan-tsung too. The Emperor had developed an immense respect for him, both as an artist and as an individual, and retained this respect for all his temperamental and unruly behavior.
Wu Tao-tzu also became friendly with Prince Ling and accompanied him on an inspection tour to Szechuan. He is said to have taken one day to paint a magnificent landscape scroll, featuring 100 miles of the wild Chialing River, on this trip.
Another story of the artist concerns his painting of General P'ei Min. Instead of having the General strike up a conventional pose, he asked him to begin his ferocious Sword Dance. By the time the dance was over, so was Wu Tao-tzu's equally energetic masterpiece.
Wu Tao-tzu remained under imperial patronage for the rest of his life. The exact date or manner of his death is not known. According to the official story, the artist spent his last years working on a huge and magnificent mural in Emperor Ming Huang's Palace. One day the Emperor arrived to see his work as he was nearly finished. Wu Tao-tzu showed him a cave that he had included in the painting; not an ordinary cave, but one that opened when the painter clapped his hands. The artist invited the Emperor to see the interior, which he assured him was utterly beautiful. Saying this, he stepped inside, expecting the Emperor to follow. The Emperor remained outside, and the cave entrance closed. In a matter of seconds the entire mural faded away and only a blank wall remained.