Born in present-day Suzhou, he claimed to be a descendant of the Song dynasty prime minister and patriot Wen Tianxiang. Wen’s family was originally from Hengyang, Hunan, where his family had established itself shortly after the 10th century. Not until the time of Wen's great-grandfather, Wen Hui, a military officer, did the family move to the Suzhou area. Zhengming's son, Wen Peng, was a noted seal-engraver.
Wen often chose painting subjects of great simplicity, like a single tree or rock. His work often brings about a feeling of strength through isolation, which often reflected his discontent with official life. Many of his works also celebrate the contexts of elite social life for which they were created. He collaborated in the design of the Humble Administrator's Garden, generally considered one of China's four greatest gardens.