Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum

A catalogue of the Ashmolean's collection of Japanese paintings by Janice Katz (published Oxford, 2003).

Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum by Janice Katz

Compact treasures: thoughts on two Edo period albums in the Ashmolean Museum

Albums of paintings or gajō underwent a dramatic increase in popularity in Edo period Japan. They never quite attained the same artistic and critical recognition as other forms of Japanese art, however, for instance hanging scrolls or folding screens. As one critic of the time wrote, somewhat sharply:

Collecting many small works of calligraphy and paintings in albums to bring out and show people for their praise is something that has become very widespread recently. Doing this, common people and vulgar people become fashionable. Everyone is saying, ‘Calligraphy and painting albums, calligraphy and painting albums.' I think it is only a pile of manure or a pile of rubble. I could not bear the annoyance of being entreated for this kind of work... [1]

Although this is referring to the vogue for ‘assembled albums’ (yoriai or shūshū gajō), it illustrates the contempt that albums in general elicited by the end of the Edo period. This relegation of the format to loathsome, ‘low culture’, status has continued in modulated form to the present. Painted albums came to be associated with frivolous, poor quality paintings because of the great quantities in which they were produced for anyone with the interest and the finances. Works by painters for albums were long regarded as secondary, not actual masterpieces worthy of the same attention given larger format works. Likewise, in recent scholarship, they have been eclipsed in favour of their similarly bound cousin, the printed book. In the few cases when albums are discussed, it is often within the confines of one school or one artist’s work, and the album as a format is rarely commented upon.

However, as this essay proposes to show, the album deserves our attention for its distinctive characteristics. More than any other type of Japanese painting, albums naturally lend themselves to artistic collaboration. One small portable object may incorporate several paintings ranging from a few to hundreds. It is often the product of many artists who have travelled to different cities to be together. Likewise, the inclusion of the work of calligraphers in poems, prefaces or colophons may enhance the painted images. A patron who assembled the pieces together may also be involved. In addition to its collaborative nature, the painted album stands apart because of the time element involved: individual paintings within an album may have been produced entirely independently of one another on different occasions, or images by several artists could have been brought together and mounted years or even decades after they were first painted.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the production of gajō by focusing on two previously un-published examples from the collection of the Ashmolean Museum featured in this catalogue. As they come out of different traditions within Japanese painting, each has its own particular set of circumstances related to its production and its intended audience. First is the story of an unusual Tale of Genji album dateable to the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Next, I discuss an early work by the Nanga artist Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856). The reasons why they were produced: as a gift for a girl or a new bride, or to show affiliation with Chinese painting traditions, are as marvellously diverse as the paintings on each of their pages.

The Tale of Genji album

The earliest painted albums known to be produced were those that illustrated chapters of the Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu’s (c. 978-1016) tale of Heian period court life is, to say the least, epic. The novel probably gained attention during the author’s lifetime, when it began its meteoric rise in popularity that has lasted until this day. It follows the life of the protagonist, the ‘Shining' Prince Genji, through the romantic exploits of youth and fatherhood before turning its attention to the life of his son. In all, the book contains fifty-four chapters filled with details of the daily life and ceremonies of the court. Murasaki’s highly descriptive language easily lent itself to illustration and the novel became a popular subject to be depicted in painting, the earliest known being a handscroll, or emaki [2]. Each of the chapters of the tale could be represented by a painted scene or scenes, and the accompanying text could be written next to it so that the text and the image could be viewed at the same time.

In contrast to a handscroll, an album would have the image and text on pages opposite one another, and had the added advantage that any chapter of the already well known story could be opened up to instantly. An album of 1509 by Tosa Mitsunobu (1435-1525) and several accomplished calligraphers in the Harvard University Art Museum is the earliest extant complete Genji album. It is made up of individual shikishi poem and picture sheets that had been previously pasted onto a screen [3]. While poem sheets meant to be pasted on folding screens and handscrolls showing scenes from the tale predate the albums [4], in the Edo period the painted album became the most characteristic way to enjoy the famous exploits of Genji.

Almost from the time it was conceived, critics have speculated on the meaning of the novel. Was it a way for Murasaki to pass the time or did she have some real purpose behind it? Was the author trying to teach her audience Buddhist or Confucian principles? Was she making moral judgements on her characters? Though these questions are still up for debate,what is known is that by the Edo period, Tale of Genji albums were seen as appropriate gifts for a young woman or bride, meant to inform her of the refined manners of a past golden age.

The Ashmolean’s Tale of Genji album deviates from the pattern of such albums, and by doing so highlights its didactic purpose. It is a fairly late example which can be dated to the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries (based on the identification of one of the calligraphers, as discussed below). It was given to the Ashmolean as a gift by R. Somervell of Westmorland in 1965. The album is accordion-folded with twelve non-sequential scenes from the Tale of Genji [5], prefaced by two pages of calligraphy at the beginning and followed by two pages of calligraphy at the back. The pictorial images are technically accomplished miniature paintings by a single artist or studio done in mineral pigments on paper with a generous use of gold leaf and dust and bear no visible seals or signature. The calligraphy that accompanies the images are not excerpts from the tale as one might expect, but poems based on four of the five Confucian virtues of filial piety or gojō, namely jin (benevolence), gi (justice), rei (duty) and chi (wisdom). In contrast to the scenes, each poem was written by a different hand on red and green dyed silk decorated with a young pine and mist motif in gold paint and cut gold leaf. The frontispiece and finispiece of the album are paintings of the three friends of winter, that is pine, plum and bamboo, done on paper and also decorated with gold dust [see EA1965.69].

The album underwent extensive damage at some point in the past at which time the leaves were removed and put into the current mounting, and areas of loss in the paintings were repaired [6]. The current album was also extensively damaged by water, which has warped the outer covers and damaged the back of the accordion-folded paper coated with a wash of indigo and mica, but seems not to have affected the painted images or calligraphy. The brocade on the front and back covers [see EA1965.69] was lifted off the previous album, backing paper and all, and placed on the current album. It was probably already in a damaged state when this was done since the gold threads, lacking any support from deteriorated warp threads, have been glued down to prevent even further loss. It seems, therefore, that to make the current album, the paintings, calligraphy and brocade were taken from a previous album or albums, and not from a screen. Perhaps at that time only the current twelve leaves were in good enough condition to salvage, which is why we are now left with twelve seemingly random scenes from the tale. It is likely that there were more than twelve painted scenes in the original album or albums as the insect damage to adjacent images in the current album does not match up [7]. Damage could also be the reason why there are only poems for four of the virtues of filial piety and not five, however it is likely that four was the original number of the calligraphy pages since symmetry is an important factor in the compilation of albums. Having two poems at the beginning and two at the end may have been the original intention. It should also be noted that the calligraphy may be of a later date than the paintings and contemporary with the pre-modern repairs evident on the images, though this is not likely.

Stylistically, the delicate paintings can be said to be the work of an artist versed in the methods of the Tosa school of Yamato-e painting. This school’s speciality was figure painting of Japanese literary or legendary themes. Its founder Mitsunobu (c. 1434-1525) was employed as edokoro azukari, the chief of the Imperial Painting Office. In subsequent generations for little more than a century many of the Tosa school would hold this post. However, by the seventeenth century Tosa artists no longer held this title and the school was badly in need of an injection of new ideas and talent. Although Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-1691) was an innovator in larger format works [8],  other artists trained in Tosa school techniques continued their work in miniature. Painted Tale of Genji albums were produced by Tosa artists for centuries, and recent discoveries have enabled us to attribute these paintings to specific Tosa artists and therefore set up a chronology. Aside from Mitsunobu, later generations of direct descendants such as Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539-1613) and Mitsunori (1583-1638) produced Genji albums, including those now in the Kyoto National Museum and Tokugawa Art Museum [9]. In the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, several Kyoto ateliers not part of the Tosa school were producing Tosa-style Tale of Genji albums as well, a practice that continued into the eighteenth century [10]. The Ashmolean album is probably the produc­tion of such a studio or of a branch of the Tosa school different from the main lineage. There are some notable inconsistencies with other Tosa-style Tale of Genji albums, however, as discussed below.

An easily identifiable scene from the Ashmolean’s album is an image from chapter 23, Hatsune (The First Warbler) [see EA1965.69]. On New Year’s day, Genji, his daughter and her ladies look over gifts from his daughter’s mother, Lady Akashi. We see inside the young girl’s rooms,which are depicted in the traditional manner for interior scenes of the Tale of Genji, known as fukinuki yatai, or blown-off roof. Genji reads the note that came attached to the present of an artificial warbler on a pine branch seen in the centre of the room. His daughter bends her head and looks at the writing box while thinking of a reply to her mother’s note. A group of young girls outside carry newly gathered seedling pines while others comment on the blossoming plum tree in the garden. Behind them, a jewel-like landscape of green hillocks and a blue winding stream is laid out. The ladies wear several layers of brightly coloured robes detailed with patterns painted in gold with the thinnest of brushes. (The method of thickly applying mineral pigments to 'build-up' the painting surface is another characteristic Yamato-e painting method known as tsukuri-e.) Their black hair glistens as much as the gold elements due to a thin layer of animal glue applied over it. Gracefully drawn lines with taut curves articulate the individual threads of the ladies’ hair, each slat of the bamboo blinds, and other minute details. Above and below, the edges of the scene are covered with gold clouds made up of cut gold leaf and dust, another convention often seen in Tale of Genji paintings to soften the transition from one scene to another (on folding screens) and focus the viewer’s attention on the main elements of the composition. Looking at reproductions, it is easy to forget that this complicated and crowded scene is painted on a sheet that is merely about 28 cm high and 23 cm wide.

Certain stylistic features set the Ashmolean museum’s album apart from other Tosa-style works. The figures' eyes are clearly delineated and their pupils can be seen. This is not the hikime kagihana style of traditionally rendering the faces of the nobility with slits for eyes. In addition, the faces of the figures are elongated with very high foreheads. The elongated faces, seen in a small number of Tale of Genji illustrations, can best be said to be a kind of Tosa-style painting concurrent with more standard- shaped faces. The 1509 Harvard album's figures have elongated faces, as does an incense wrapper of the eighteenth century in the Sannmaru Shozokan [11]. The latter closely resembles the type of elongation seen in the Ashmolean album.

Compositionally, some scenes in the album do conform closely to Tosa school models. For example, the scene of Aoi (Heartvine) is very similar to that in the Tokugawa Art Museum by Tosa Mitsunori (1583-1638). The placement of the carriages, the pose of the bull, Lady Rokujō's hand holding a fan protruding from the carriage at the left, and the pointing attendant at the centre all signify that the painter of the Ashmolean album must certainly have been familiar with the Tosa album, the model used for the Tosa album, or a model done after it. Regrettably, this is the only scene with such striking similarities to the Tokugawa Art Museum work.

Scenes in the Ashmolean album that are compositionally inconsistent with Tosa school norms are in the majority, however [12]. In chapter 17, E-awase (A Picture Contest), two factions of ladies compete in front of Genji, Tō no Chūjō and the Suzaku emperor seated behind the curtain. Other depictions of the scene in the Tosa school’s oeuvre show the scrolls as having painted images [13], but the Ashmolean’s scene shows the women looking at calligraphy, perhaps the textual portion of tales or of Genji's record of his exile at Suma, though this is not specifically mentioned in the Genji text. Also, in chapter 2, Hahakigi (The Broom Tree) a sixteen- year-old Genji, Tō no chūjō and two others sit and read letters Genji has received from various women. According to the text, two young courtiers soon enter the room and join the discussion [14].In the Ashmolean scene, however, four figures are inside the room and two more men are approaching outside. It is unclear who these two additional figures are. While it was not unusual for the artist to render his illustrations based to a degree on his own interpretations of the text, it seems that the artist of the Ashmolean album strayed from standard depictions of scenes to such a great extent that at times the illustra­tions have no basis in the Tale of Genji itself.

Undoubtedly the rarest aspect of the Ashmolean’s album is the inclusion of poems based on the Confucian virtues of filial piety. Confucianism began in China with the teachings of the philosophers Confucius (551-479 BC) and later Mencius (372-289 BC) to provide an instructive framework for the individual as he or she navigated relationships with superiors or inferiors in an effort to create a peaceful system of government. It became official government policy and was codified during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), and it was this school of thought that was transmitted to Japan and became the basis of Neo-Confucianism in the Edo period known as Shushigaku. The philosophy was used by the ruling Tokugawa shogunate to instill societal harmony and order through a rigid caste system made up of four groups: Samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants.

In the Ashmolean's album, the distinctive mannered script of the calligrapher of the poem on politeness, or rei can be identified as Reizei Tameyasu (1735-1816) on stylistic grounds [15]. Tameyasu was the sixteenth-generation member of the imperial Reizei family descended from Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) whose calligraphy was the most sought after by daimyo of the Edo period to adorn the alcoves during a tea gathering. As a living inheritor of this much-admired line of calligraphers, Tameyasu's work would have been highly valued and obtainable only by a select few. His inclusion in the Ashmolean’s album implies that it was produced for someone from the shogunal family or a powerful daimyo family.

The poems themselves originally come from the Shūgyokushū, a fourteenth century compilation of the writings of Jien (1155-1225) [16], a Buddhist monk of the Tendai sect and a member of the imperial Fujiwara family. They read:


Others pass

and set out ahead of me

on Mount Tatsuta,

while drenched with dew,

I fell behind others.


If you inhabit a place

along the path

of kindness to others,

you, too, will be among those

who reputation will remain.



Just like a hut of bamboo

or a stand of sturdy pine,

when it comes to people,

we see strong versus weak

in a person of true character.



If born into a world

that adheres to the Way

as a matter of course,

if you understand one thing

you will grasp all things.

As mentioned above, a fifth poem entitled shin (loyalty) is not included in the album. The gojō are not known to appear in painted Tale of Genji albums with the exception of the Ashmolean album. What might have been the intent behind combining poems on Chinese Confucian virtues with a quintessentially Japanese court tale of romance and decadence? Reference to the gojō does appear in commentaries on the Tale of Genji going back to the Sairyūshō of 1528 by Sanjonishi Kin’eda [18], a text known for its Buddhist interpretation of the novel. The five poems were undergoing a burst of popularity in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as evident from their inclusion on a series of prints by Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) in the Art Institute of Chicago. Each of the prints illustrates a scene based on one of the poems written above. For example, in the print for chi, or wisdom, a young girl is being taught how to write characters as the teacher gently guides her hand. In the scene illustrating shin, or fidelity, Murasaki Shikibu herself sits on a verandah with brush in hand thinking of the next lines she will write. The gojō are instructions telling a person how to behave in society, and therefore entirely in keeping with what was seen as the intent of Murasaki’s novel during the Edo period. In contrast to today, her writing was viewed as a statement on the morals of those whose daily life she described. The Tale of Genji was written by a woman, for women, and in a beautiful language that would make enjoyable reading for educated and uneducated women alike. Its topic was one women could understand, matters of love.

Albums of the Tale of Genji were often kazaridana bon, decorated books regularly included in daimyo women’s wedding trousseaus (konrei chōdō) that were displayed in the home on shelves specially made for that purpose. An album would probably have had its own decorated lacquer box that could have formed a set with other lacquer items that made up the bulk of the trousseau. Tale of Genji imagery in general is also featured on many items such as shells for the shell game (awasegai) and on incense wrappers (kōdzutsumi). Perhaps the most famous use of images from the tale for konrei chōdō is a set of sixty lacquer items in the Tokugawa Art Museum known as Hatsune, decorated with motifs derived from that chapter of the Tale of Genji. The set was made in 1639 for the marriage of the third Tokugawa shogun's eldest daughter by the premier lacquer artist of the age, Koami Nagashige (1599-1651).

Several commentaries on the Tale of Genji praise Murasaki’s intent and declare that it is the most proper sort of tale for women to read, despite having indecent elements. The most prolific of these commentators was the samurai Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691), author of the Genji gaiden, a Confucian reading of the tale and its intent [20]. Banzan saw the novel as describing an ideal Confucian world wherein the characters are confronted with moral lessons. In his commentary, we not only learn his views of the novel but how it was perceived by society in general. In the preface to the Genji gaiden, he writes:

A certain woman said, ‘In the many books that have been written over the ages for the edification of men, there are no doubt examples which a woman would do well to emulate, but when one has no education they are difficult to understand... The Genji monogatari depicts the most indecent doings. But it is written by such a brilliant woman, and in such lovely language, and moreover it appeals to a woman’s heart, and there are so many things to be learnt from it that-well, it seems to me that in spite of the sort of book it is, it could not but be edifying for an ignorant woman.

I replied, ...The reason the novel was written is this: the author was saddened to think that the refined manners of ancient times would, as time passed, decline and lapse into vulgarity. She realized, however, that people would shun a frank and proper sort of book, that its readers would be few, and it would not be widely known. ...But in the guise of a tale of amorous dalliance, she has left us a detailed record of the refined manners and customs of the ancient nobility [21].

This popular idea of the novel as an instruction book on ancient ways, though not necessarily Confucian, continued into the eighteenth century, a time when the scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was the leader of the kokugaku (national learning) movement that revived the study of native Japanese works of literature. He wrote a commentary on the Tale of Genji called Tama no Ogushi (Precious Little Combs) in 1796. In it, Norinaga tries to break free of past Buddhist and Confucian readings of the Genji to focus on Murasaki’s views on writing and novels as gleaned from episodes in the text. Still, the new emphasis on national learning guaranteed the Tale of Genji’s popularity and the story was considered more appropriate than ever as a guide to young women and brides.

The Ashmolean Genji album, with its poems based on Confucian virtues, is a rare exception to the norm for Edo period albums of the same theme. In its differences, however, its purpose as a type of instruction manual for young women is made all the more apparent. In terms of figure style and composition, the Ashmolean album has its basis in Tosa school models. However, the deviations from those models discussed above, specifically the inclusion of the Confucian gojō written by renowned calligraphers, may point to the involvement of a patron with specific tastes. The early repairs and remounting in themselves are evidence of the importance placed on the album in the pre-modern era. As an album is an intimate format, it was meant for display in the home and could be brought out to impress a small group of visitors. Alternatively, it could have been lovingly studied for hours in private by its owner.

Yamamoto Baiitsu’s Ancient Masters

The album of paintings by Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856), comes out of an entirely different context from the previous album, that of Chinese literati painting and its manifestation in Japan as the Nanga movement. The pages contain nine carefully conceived images of vegetables, fruits, flowers and landscapes that have been modelled on Chinese paintings. The paintings as well as a title page and colophon were most probably mounted into the accordion-folded album at some date after the sheets were first conceived of as a set. In order, the subjects painted are a peony; orchid and rock; chrysanthemums and rock; lilies; grapes; monkshood and rock; a landscape with a hut; a boat returning to shore; and lastly a medley of lotus root, lotus pod, watercress, water caltrop and arrowroot. Despite its title, no specific models are mentioned in the album itself, though stylistic similarities make it possible to point to a few likely sources which are mostly works by Ming dynasty artists. The artist’s inspiration from China should not suggest that he rendered mere slavish copies, for Baiitsu’s extreme talent to learn and incorporate various brush modes into his own deftly executed paintings is almost beyond compare.

The Ashmolean’s album illuminates Baiitsu’s use of certain Chinese models as earlier than previously thought. In addition, the album is datable to c. 1815-19, the period around Baiitsu’s first stay in Edo, and is evidence of the cultural circles with which he associated. Its early date among Baiitsu’s known works makes the album a significant contribution to our understanding of the artist's career. Lastly, in the album we see his early handling of themes that would become pronounced in his later compositions.

Baiitsu formed part of the third generation of Nanga artists. The Nanga (lit. Southern painting) movement, characterised by imaginative and often idyllic landscapes, was named for the Chinese Southern school style of amateur literati artists which the Japanese artists initially emulated. The movement began in Kyoto, had its practitioners in Edo and, by Baiitsu’s time, had a strong foothold in other areas such as Baiitsu’s native Nagoya. Although Nagoya was a breeding ground for Nanga artists, most still went to Kyoto to seek their fame. Sakaki Hyakusen (1697-1753) and Niwa Kagen (1742-1786) were two early Nanga painters from Nagoya who were pioneers in the style Baiitsu would come to inherit. That inheritance, the Nanga manner, actually had many elements to it by Baiitsu’s time. Printed painting manuals from China such as the Hasshū gafu (Eight Picture Albums) and the Kashien Gaden (Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting) were copied by artists to learn brushstrokes and painting techniques, not to mention the range of common literati subjects in China. The practice of sketching actual scenery to produce so-called ‘true views’ was less widespread, but nonetheless seen as an essential pursuit for any serious artist. In addition, a strain of realistic and colourful bird and flower painting came into Japan by way of the Chinese visitor to Nagasaki for two years, Shen Nanpin (fl. mid- eighteenth century), as well as through prints from Suzhou. These are the most significant elements of the Nanga style, however, the mindset, lifestyle and theory behind its execution was a serious matter to its proponents in Japan. Its Chinese practitioners upheld the ideals of the study of poetry and calligraphy as well as painting for self-cultivation and awareness. Painting to sell one’s artwork was considered incompatible with the literatis’ morals. In Japan, however, no such taboo was attached to the selling of paintings.

Baiitsu is best known today as a painter of large-scale bird and flower compositions which were mostly done for sale. Examples of his complex and decorative works in this genre are included in this catalogue [EA1966.115 and EA1966.116]. In addition to these however, Baiitsu also produced a large number of paintings of classic literati themes such as chrysanthemums, orchids or landscapes. The publication of Ancient Masters is timely in that our understanding of Baiitsu as a serious student of Chinese literati painting and culture in general has been expanded by recent studies and exhibitions on the artist [22].

Baiitsu’s first teacher was probably Yamamoto Rantei, an artist of the Kano school. His second, Cho Gesshō (1770-1832) was a Shijō school painter, whose well-developed creativity and wit served Baiitsu well. It is known that Baiitsu also admired fellow Nagoya resident Tanaka Totsugen (1760-1823), leader of the yamato-e revival, one of whose fan paintings is included in this volume. In addition to Nagoya and Kyoto, the Western coast city of Kanazawa played a significant role in Baiitsu’s fortune.

After successfully managing to impress many well-known cultural figures there during his first trip, he was asked back later in 1809 to decorate Kanazawa castle. Here he met the artist Tani Buncho (1763-1840). Baiitsu was but twenty-seven at the time, and this meeting may have prompted his visit to Edo as well as guaranteeing his success while there [23]. Although Baiitsu’s name seems to have been known by this date, he becomes a major figure in literati circles beginning in earnest with his time in Edo from 1814-15 [24]. This is the period to which the Ashmolean’s album belongs.

Before his time in Edo, Baiitsu had several chances to study Chinese paintings, both indirectly through printed manuals and directly in temples and private collections. The artist’s knowledge of literati painting techniques developed over time into an impressive repertoire of styles. He was very familiar with the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, which he copied in full in one night [25]. In fact, most of the compositions in the Ashmolean's album can be found in similar form there. Artists of Baiitsu’s time had greater access to Chinese paintings (and to a greater variety of well-known and unknown painter’s works, genuine images as well as copies) than earlier Nanga painters and did not have to rely solely on the printed manuals from China. For his study of actual Chinese paintings, Baiitsu relied on Kamiya Tenyū (1710-1801), a wealthy merchant in Nagoya who dealt in miso and soybean products. Tenyu had about a dozen Chinese paintings which he encouraged Baiitsu to copy [26]. He is also believed to have given Baiitsu his artist name, or, after the artist admired a painting of a plum by Yuan dynasty artist Wang Mien (1287-1359). In 1802 Baiitsu left his home and travelled with painter and friend Nakabayashi Chikutō (1776-1853) to Kyoto, where it is said Baiitsu sketched views of the city and surrounding areas. Although not as exclusive in his study of old Chinese paintings as Chikuto, Baiitsu probably copied several works in Kyoto temples at that time. In his later career he is known to have collected a number of paintings by Chinese artists, and would have seen many more in exhibitions and through his role as a connoisseur [27].

The album is prefaced by a title page reading Shiko (Ancient Masters) brushed by Ōkubo Shibutsu [see EA1964.89]. The title page is signed with one of his literary names, Kōzan Ōsho (written by old man Kōzan), and sealed ‘Kōzan shidō' and ‘Tenmin’. The colophon of the album is by Kashiwagi Jotei, a great friend of Shibutsu’s in Edo.

The colophon [see EA1968.89] reads:

In painting, form-likeness is not esteemed

and people today agree with these words.

In its landscapes and flower paintings,

this album represents the origins [of painting].

This same sentiment was later echoed by Baiitsu: ‘Those who study painting must not concentrate on shapes. They should concentrate first on brushwork. Those people who emphasise form-likeness will produce sick and dead brushwork... [29]’

Jotei’s death date gives us a terminus ante quem of 1819 for the album. He and Shibutsu were regarded as the foremost composers of Chinese poetry of their time in Edo. Together and separately, Shibutsu and Jotei inscribed a handful of Baiitsu’s paintings from the mid to late 1810s. Landscape with Figure in a Boat, in the Nagoya City Art Museum, bears inscriptions by both Shibutsu and Jotei, though the painting itself was done in 1814. Other works by Baiitsu from the period 1815-19 include a handscroll of Literati Plants and Flowers painted by Baiitsu in Osaka while traveling with Shibutsu in 1818 [Yabumoto collection, Amagasaki]. Shibutsu added his own inscription to this in 1820. The handscroll has images of many of the same subjects as in the Ashmolean album such as a peony, lilies and arrowroot, and confirms Baiitsu’s devotion to mastering these subjects early in his career.

Of the works of this period by Baiitsu, it should be noted that many are small format handscrolls or albums, perhaps a reflection of his constant movement at this time. It could also be taken as a confirmation of Baiitsu's enthusiasm for literati painting, whose Chinese proponents had tended to prefer small format works since the Ming dynasty. The reason for this is unclear, but it is likely that it reflects the amateur nature of the art of the literati in China. When painting in a small format, one need only have a suitable amount of paper at hand when the inspiration to compose a picture arose, perhaps for a departing friend or an unexpected visitor. Though such artists in China did not sell their works, they often exchanged them with like- minded acquaintances, therefore a small format would have been an advantage. There is also no denying the more private element involved in a painting of smaller size meant to be viewed by one person or a small group of close associates. Baiitsu may well have chosen to produce albums or hand scrolls simply because his models were of roughly equal size, however, it seems unlikely that he was immune from attaching greater sentiment to his small format works of literati subjects. In the Ashmolean work, the inclusion of the calligraphy of two of his respected mentors in Edo also supports the view that Baiitsu saw this album as a personal statement rather than as an item for mass consumption like his larger bird and flower compositions.

Baiitsu's association with the pair of poets went beyond having the pair inscribe his paintings. They were, in fact, good friends who enjoyed many similar interests. Shibutsu and Jotei were also painters, and Baiitsu undertook a number of pursuits including poetry (Chinese kanshi, Japanese waka), the sencha tea ceremony calligraphy and the flute. Jotei was a member of a group formed specifically to promote the arts of both poetry and painting in each cultured individual [30]. Shibutsu and Baiitsu were particularly close, and though they met only a handful of times throughout their lives, Shibutsu often wrote of his admiration for his friend. In 1818, the pair set off travelling together for several months, meeting up with other prominent scholars, poets and painters, attending gatherings and drinking as recorded in Shibutsu’s Saiyū shisō. A highlight of the journey was a voyage on the Yodo river from Kyoto to Osaka [31].

The individual pages of the album point to the models on which Baiitsu may have been basing his work. The first painting in the album is that of a peony flower that has been clipped from its bush [see EA1964.89]. The heavy flower sits atop its thin branch with delicate leaves. Baiitsu was a master colourist, and this is nowhere more evident than in this small image. The deep red of the centre of the flower fades to a light pink on the outer petals. These colours in turn overlie a darkened lead-based pigment that in its original condition of a gleaming bright white colour must have made the flower stand out against the ivory-coloured paper. Upon close examination, it is apparent that every aspect of the painting is methodically controlled, yet the finished appearance is one of movement and spontaneity. No two petals or leaves bear the same shape or direction. The leaves are painted with a mixture of green and pink pigment in the mokkotsu or boneless manner without outline. In its composition, this image is a standard depiction of a much-loved subject in Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese painting; however. Baiitsu's original handling of the theme makes it clear that he only relied on Chinese models as objects of study and inspiration. The peony would later become a mainstay in Baiitsu’s more common large-scale hanging scroll and screen compositions.

The peonies done as part of a handscroll of 1835 in the Feinberg Collection (Figure 14) are similar to the one in the album in terms of the sense of weight of the blossom and the movement in the leaves. However, in the later work, Baiitsu has perfected a complex system of only using darker washes of colour near the centre of the flower for greater visual clarity. Models that Baiitsu could have used to develop his style of painting peonies include works by Chen Shun (1484-1544), a late Ming dynasty artist [32]. This artist's technique of painting flowers was much admired in Japan at the time, attested to by a handscroll by Tsubaki Chinzan (1801-1854) in the British Museum.

One of the most striking images of the album is that of a small hut behind a cluster of trees [EA1964.89] done in the unmistakable manner of Ni Zan (1301-74), the famous Yuan dynasty landscape painter. Baiitsu probably studied Ni Zan’s manner indirectly through later Chinese artists such as I Fukyū (1698-after 1747) or Yang Wencong (1597-1645). In this image Baiitsu finishes using a dry brush to sketch the lines of the mountains and trees over more watery light grey strokes. I Fukyū was a Chinese artist, who had worked in Japan in the early eighteenth century, whose style revived the famous Yuan dynasty masters. A collection of Fukyū’s painting designs were printed in 1803 under the title I Fukyū Ike Taiga Gafu, with an inscription by Ōkubo Shibutsu, the man who wrote the title for the Ashmolean’s album. Through Shibutsu, Baiitsu would certainly have been well versed in Fukyu’s compositions [33]. One of Baiitsu's most famous possessions was a landscape done in the style of Ni Zan by Yang Wencong [34]. Baiitsu is known to have had this painting, which he copied in 1848, since 1831. The landscape in the album has similar rock forms to the painting by Yang Wencong, but the landscape is altogether flatter and the tree forms are less varied. It is likely that Baiitsu’s model for the album page was another painting. Baiitsu would later paint many Ni Zan style landscapes, most notably one in 1837 [Addiss-Seo Hanga Collection on long term loan to the Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art]. However the painting in the Ashmolean moves up the date that Baiitsu started painting in this manner. The 1837 landscape and the one in the Ashmolean album are extremely similar and may point to a common model.

Baiitsu’s Ancient Masters is the product of a specific time in the artist’s career after he first became associated with exclusive cultural groups concerned with the study of Chinese painting and poetry in Edo. Through his choice of the format of an album, Baiitsu was able to show his affiliation with Chinese literati preferences for smaller, more portable works. Each of the images points to Baiitsu's familiarity with certain Chinese painting masters and brushmodes, but the choice of the album in general lent further credence to the paintings on its pages as the work of a truly refined individual. Added to this, the inclusion of a title page and colophon by two prominent Edo poets, Baiitsu’s close associates, would have carried great personal meaning for the artist. Therefore, the audience of Ancient Masters was both the owner and a small group of like-minded individuals.


The proliferation of painters and calligraphers in the Edo period, and increased communication among them through travel is no more evident than in these small, complex items. It is the combination of calligrapher and painter, in both cases, that makes the album's function apparent. In the Tale of Genji album, calligrapher and painter come together to produce a new Neo-Confucian twist on an old classic. In Baiitsu’s case, the addition of a title page and colophon by two eminent Edo calligraphers lends increased value to the artist’s role as a literatus in the capital despite his origins elsewhere.

The two albums discussed above highlight why albums increasingly became the format of choice in the Edo period. An album, because it could be studied in private or in a small group, was the most sensible form for the Tale of Genji’s didactic purpose. For Baiitsu’s Ancient Masters, the album format signified the artist's knowledge of Chinese literati artwork and lifestyle that became synonymous with cultural sophistication. Interestingly, in both cases it is the album’s intimate nature that makes it valuable as an object of status, to be brought out to show a select group of admirers on special occasions.


[1] This is Hugh Wylie’s translation of section lxi of Nanga painter Kanai Uju’s (1796-1857) Musei Shiwa (Talks on ‘Silent poetry') in Hugh Wylie, 'Nanga painting treatises of nineteenth century Japan: Translations, commentary, and analysis’. (Ph.D. thesis. University of Kansas, 1991). 192.

[2] The earliest extant illustrations of the Tale of Genji date to the early twelfth century, about one hundred years after the tale was written. The famous handscroll is divided among the Goto Museum. Tokugawa Reimeikai Foundation, Tokyo National Museum and others in Japan.

[3] See Anne Rose Kitagawa, ‘Behind the scenes of Harvard's Tale of Genji album’, Apollo (Nov. 2001), 28-35, on the story of how the prior format of these shikishi came to light.

[4] We know that Genji pictures were painted on shikishi to be pasted on screens as early as the mid-thirteenth century from the Choshu ki, which relates the story of a set of Genji paintings commissioned by a shogun. For a detailed account of this record, see Miyeko Murase, Iconography of the Tale of Genji, Genji Monogatari ekotoba (New York, Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1983), 13-

[5] The scenes generally follow the tale from beginning to end, but there are gaps of several chapters between each. For a listing of all of the chapters represented, see the catalogue entry for this album, no. 44.

[6] For example, areas of gold that underwent damage were filled in with gold leaf patches, and areas where the pigment was flaking off was reinforced with animal glue. The latter areas are now cracking because the application of glue was so thick.

[7] I would like to thank Mr Philip Meredith of the Far Eastern Conservation Centre of the Museum of Ethnography, Leiden, for his assessment of the album.

[8] For Mitsuoki’s experimentation with the school’s standard methods, see John M. Rosenfield. ‘Japanese studio practice: The Tosa family and the Imperial Painting Office in the seventeenth century’, in Peter Lukehart, ed., The Artist's Workshop. Studies in the History of Art no. 38 (Washington DC: Center For Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, 1993), 79-98.

[9] The Tosa Mitsuyoshi album in the Kyoto National Museum is published in Takeda Tsuneo ‘Tosa Mitsuyoshi to saiga - Kyoto kokuritsu hakubutsukan Genji monogatari zucho o megutte’, Kokka 996 (1976), 11-40. The Mitsunori album is reproduced in The Tale of Genji/Tosa Mitsunori (Tokyo: The Shogun Age Exhibition Executive Committee, 1983).

[10] Rosenfield, 84. The Chester Beatty Library has a number of such Genji albums from the second half of the seventeenth century. See Sorimachi Shigeo, Nihon eiribon oyohi ehon mokuroku: airurandokoku daburin chesutaa biitii raiburarii z0, Japanese Illustrated Books and Manuscripts of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland (Tokyo: K5bunso, 1979) 27, 34, 36.

[11] Museum of Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozokan, Esthetic Sense of the Edo period - Tradition and Evolvement of Designs in Paintings (Tokyo: Museum of the Imperial Collections, 2002), 57.

[12] Tosa school depictions of the Tale of Genji were codified in a sixteenth century manuscript (most probably a copy of an earlier manuscript) in the Osaka Women's College, the subject of Miyeko Murase’s Iconography of the Tale of Genji.

[13] For example, Mitsunori's album in the Tokugawa Art Museum reproduced in Akiyama Ken and Taguchi Eiichi, eds, Goka ‘Genji-e no sekai: Genji monogatari (Tokyo: Gakushu kenkyusha, 1999). 86.

[14] Edward G. Seidensticker. Murasaki Shikubu: The Tale of Genji (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1976), 23.

[15] Other examples of Tameyasu's calligraphy can be seen in Teikayo: Tokubetsuten (Tokyo: Goto Bijutsukan, 1987), 188-92.1 am grateful to John Carpenter for proposing this identification.

[16] See Shinpen kokka taikan henshu iinkai, Shinpen Kokka Taikan 3 (Tokyo: Kadokawa shoten, 1983). 695. The waka of the five virtues of filial piety (also called the five cardinal virtues) are in section three of the Shugyokushu.

[17] The translations of the four poems were generously provided by John Carpenter.

[18] Ii Haruki, ed., Naikku bunkobon Sairyūshō: Naikaku bunkobon (Tokyo: Ōfūsha, 1975), 503-4. I would like to thank James McMullen for informing me about the contents of Sairyūsho.

[19] Margaret O. Gentles, The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints vol. 2 Harunubu, Korysai, Shigemasa, their followers and contemporaries (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1955-64) 68-70. The poems on the prints are not entirely faithful to those in Shūgyokushū.

[20] For a detailed account of Banzan's view of Genji, see James McMullen, Idealism, Protest, and the Tale of Genji: The Confucianism of Kumazawa Banzan (1619—91) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999). Kumazawa Banzan (1619—91) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

[21] This translation appears in Thomas James Harper, ‘Motoori Norinaga’s criticism of the Genji Monogatari: A study of the background and critical content of his Genji Monogatari Tama no Ogushi' (Ph.D. thesis, University of Michigan, 1971), 84-5.

[22] For example, see Patricia Jane Graham, ‘Yamamoto Baiitsu: His life, literati pursuits, and related paintings’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Kansas, 1983) and Nagoyashi hakubutsukan, Owari no nanga (Nagoya: Nagoyashi hakubutsukan, 1981).

[23] This event is described in Yoshida Toshihide, ‘Yamamoto Baiitsu kenkyu josetsu’ in Nagoyashi hakubutsukan kenkyu kiyo, vol. 2, 1979, 19 and a full explanation is in Izumi Kan’ichi, Kanazawa jo to Yamamoto Baiitsu no sokuseki (Takaoka: Iwanami bukku saabisu sentaa, 1998), 124-32.

[24] Graham estimates that Baiitsu was in Edo at least from the summer of 1814 to the spring of 1815, see Graham, 38-42.

[25] Graham, 31.

[26] The story of these ten Chinese paintings is related in Graham, ‘Yamamoto Baiitsu', 27.

[27] A catalogue for a painting exhibit in honour of Baiitsu’s seventieth birthday lists many Chinese paintings Baiitsu would certainly have seen including many from his own collection, and a seventh year memorial exhibition after his death in which work from Baiitsu’s collection was also shown is discussed in Graham, ‘Yamamoto Baiitsu’, 108-10. For a fuller description of Baiitsu as a connoisseur of Chinese paintings, see ibid. 101-3.

[28] I would like to thank James Lin for his help in translating the colophon, as well as Cary Liu and Eugenie Tsai for their professional touch.

[29] This is Graham’s translation of a passage appearing in Kanematsu Romon, Chikuto to Baiitsu (Tokyo, 1910). Graham, ‘Yamamoto Baiitsu', 149.

[30] This was the Shofukyu Ginsha (Small Society for the Preservation of Poetry Chanting), described in Wylie, 352.

[31] The details of this trip are recounted in Graham, ‘Yamamoto Baiitsu’, 42-7. For a detailed account of Shibutsu and Baiitsu's relationship, see Izumi, 133-70.

[32] See for example, his painting of peonies dated 1538 in the National Palace Museum, Taipei published in James Cahill, Parting at the Shore, Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty 1368-1580 (Tokyo and New York: Weatherhill, 1978), plate 127.

[33] An example of a work by I Fukyu in the Ni Zan style is Quiet Hamlet published in Steven Addiss, ed., Japanese Quest for a New Vision, the Impact of Visiting Chinese Painters, 1600—1900: selections from the Hutchinson collection at the Spencer Museum of Art (Lawrence, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1986), 17.

[34] This painting is discussed in Yamanouchi Chozo, Nihon Nangashi (Tokyo: Ruri shobo, 1981), 386-7.


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