Huang Gongwang is together with Ni Zan, Wu Zhen and Wang Meng called the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty (1206–1368). They are considered the four most oustanding artists of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Together they greatly developed landscape painting.
During the Yuan period, after the Mongol conquest of the Song dynasty, many of the leading landscape painters were literati who did not serve in office, either because offices were not as widely available as they had been under the Song, or because they did not want to serve the conquerors.
Scholars' landscapes, like the paintings they did of other subjects, were designed for a restricted audience of like-minded individuals. It was not uncommon for scholars to use the allusive side of paintings to make political statements, especially statements of political protest.
Scenes of scholars in caves, like scenes of scholars in boats, express the longing of scholars for escape from the unpleasant realities of social and political life. Boats evoke numerous images from poetry; caves refer to Daoist ideas of hidden realities.
It became quite common among literati artists of the Yuan to allude to earlier painting styles in their paintings. They were creating, in a sense, art historical art, as their paintings did not refer only to landscapes, but also to the large body of earlier paintings that their contemporaries collected and critiqued. Another trait of Yuan literati landscapists is that they did not hide the process of their painting, but rather allowed the traces of their brushes to be visible, going considerably further in this direction than painters of the Song.
In Ming times, the three painters Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng along with Wu Zhen, whose paintings of bamboo was particularly appreciated, were designated the Four Masters of the Yuan period.