Wen Zhengming was born Wen Bi in present-day Suzhou on November 28, 1470. He would later be known by his courtesy name, Zhengming. When he was two years old, his father, Wen Lin, passed the imperial examination with the highest possible rank, jinshi. Wen Lin was assigned a government position as a magistrate in Yongjia County in Zhejiang province, and left for his job, leaving his two sons in the care of his wife, Qi Shenning. In 1476, Qi died of an illness at the age of 32. Wen Lin commissioned the noted scholar Li Dongyang to write an inscription for her tomb.
Wen Zhengming’s family was originally from Hengyang, Hunan province, where his family had established itself shortly after the 10th century. Not until the time of his great-grandfather, Wen Hui, a military officer, did the family move to the Suzhou area. Zhengming was a distant relative of the Song dynasty official Wen Tianxiang, through an ancestor who lived in Hengshan County in Hunan. From this he derived his hao (art name), Hengshan, which he used to sign many of his works. His father Wen Lin and his grandfather Wen Hong (Gongda) were both interested in painting. Wen Lin was also a patron of Tang Yin, Wen Zhengming's contemporary and fellow member of the "Four Masters". Zhengming's eldest 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.