Zao Wou-Ki was born on 1 February 1920, in Peking (now Beijing). When he was young, his family moved near Shanghai where he would grow up. At the age of fifteen, he gained entry to the Hangzhou School of Fine Art, where he would study until 1941. Learning from Lin Fengmian, a respected artist who was later recognised as a pioneer of modern Chinese painting, Zao was producing largely figurative work at this time and learnt traditional Chinese techniques. Once graduated, Zao remained at the academy as an assistant teacher until he was approached by the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China, Vadime Elisseeff, who encouraged Zao to move to France and brought twenty of his paintings to Paris to show at the Cernuschi Museum’s Exposition de peintures chinoises contemporaines (1946).


In 1948, Zao moved to Paris with his wife, Lalan, and settled in Montparnasse. He quickly took to the neighbourhood, befriending his neighbour, Alberto Giacometti, and taking French classes at the Alliance Française. He had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Creuze (1949), and would exhibit at Pierre Loeb’s Galerie Pierre from 1951 to 1957. Stylistically, Zao was consumed with finding a synthesis of traditional Chinese landscape painting with European abstraction – something he was increasingly familiar with through the work of new friends, such as: Sam Francis, Hans Hartung, Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Pierre Soulages.


Zao gained international recognition in the 1960s, exhibiting for the first time at the Kootz Gallery, New York (1959), and being the subject of a major retrospective at the Folkwang Museum, Essen (1965). Though he retained the saturated colours of his work from the 1950s, the more linear and figurative elements receded and were replaced by a greater interest in light and gestural texture within abstracted compositions. In the 1970s, the gestural elements dissipated, settling upon hazy compositions with an ambiguous sense of space. At the same time, he became increasingly stimulated by the challenge of working on a large scale with multi-panel compositions. In 1972, he returned to China for the first time since he left, and made several trips throughout the decade. In 1980, he was appointed instructor of mural painting at the École National Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris and exhibited two monumental canvases at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in 1982. Zao continued to paint and exhibit internationally until his death on 9 April 2013, in Nyon, Switzerland.


Zao’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA); Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico; Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro; Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; Fundaciò Joan Miró, Barcelona; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Louvre, Paris; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Tate Collection, London.