These panels represent six of the twelve months. The panels each have calligraphy and a red seal in one corner. In each panel there is a bird and a type of plant, which are suggestive of particular months. On the top left panel there is bamboo, the bow of the boat with a small lamp attached to it, and a type of water fowl. In the bottom middle panel is a blooming sakura tree and a pheasant. In the bottom left panel is blue and white wisteria ans small sparrows. In the bottom right panel there is a willow slowly coming back to life after winter over a thatched building.
Depictions of the seasons have a prominent place in the tradition of the Kano School (the official school of painting of the Tokugawa shogunate) and Japanese art. Six-fold screens such as this, probably one of a pair, are meant to represent six of the twelve months of the year, with keen attention paid to the birds and flowers associated with each month. Although this screen bears Kano Tan'yu's signature, it was probably created by his studio or by followers working in this famous artist's style.
Painters were not alone in their masterful use of seasonal references—poetry also drew heavily on such motifs and exchange often took place between these genres, with poems inspiring painted scenes and paintings finding representation in poetic verse. The following late Heian (794—1185) and early Kamakura (1185—1333) period poems would have been part of the artistic dialogue that informs the motifs on these screens:
Spring is the cherry blossom
Summer is the cuckoo
Autumn is the moon
And in winter,
the shimmering snow is fresh to the eye.
Eihei Do-gen (1200—1253)
In the evening, the biting autumn wind blows through the field
A scowling figure standing atop a pedestal. He has four arms, two of which are clasped together, and the other two of which are holding an orb and a stick. On the pedestal are two small human figures and two birds. Above the figure are two circles. On the right and left side of the image are lines of writing.
This image is a rubbing of the deity Shômen Kongô. He is depicted with four arms, two of which hold a sword and a wheel. He is often accompanied by two servant boys, as he is here, and roosters, who were considered protectors against demons. Behind him are the sun and the moon. Some Buddhist texts say Shômen Kongô was originally a demon who caused illness and tortured humans, but that he dedicated himself to protecting them against disease after a defeat. The writing on either side of the image indicates the date. The right side of the image reads “the 8th year of the Genroku era,” or 1695.
Vertical hanging scroll of calligraphic text consisting of five Chinese characters in black ink. One of a pair.
These two calligraphic works are done by Chang Ku-nien’s wife, Chen Shu-chen, who was an accomplished painter and calligrapher herself. Written in semi-cursive script, it demonstrates the artist’s affinity for bold and well-defined lines. The couplet of poetry, reads from right to left, praises the importance of one of China’s classics: There are many old books which have many special characters; yet only great I Ching (Book of Changes) shows us a path through past and future.
Vertically long image. Ink on silk. Multiple figures gathered near a table. Vegetation in the lower left.
The artist Gai Qi was from a family of Muslim origin that lived in southeastern China, near the port city of Shanghai. A professional painter living entirely on his art, he is best known for delicately rendered images of beautiful women. This garden scene of two young maids serving their mistress a platter of lichee fruit refers to the legendary incident in which when lichees were presented to Yang Guifei (719-756), the favorite consort of the Minghuang Emperor (r. 712–756) during the Tang dynasty. Lichees grow only in southern China, and the fruit was rushed north on horseback each summer to please the extravagant taste of Yang Guifei and her court ladies. One year when celebrating Yang’s birthday, the Emperor named his musical composition The Fragrance of Lichee. After Yang was killed in a riot, the annual arrival of the fruit reminded the emperor of his lost love and caused him great sorrow. This bittersweet motif is often found in Chinese literature and painting.
Autumn flowers are painted in colored lacquer on plates of gold leaf. The quiet, natural plant motifs stand out against the glittering square of gold.
Chinese bellflowers and pampas grass are two of the “seven grasses of autumn,” a favorite motif in Japanese decorative arts for centuries. This set of lacquer plates showcases a different autumn flower on each.
This elegant painting of an idyllic retreat comes from an album of four landscape paintings (another is adjacent).
The light use of ink and the simple quick strokes used to depict the mountains and rocks demonstrate well the “emptiness and nimbleness” of landscape, a misty and dreamlike quality that Huang Yue advocated in his art criticism. As an artist in the literati (amateur scholar-artist) tradition, he believed it was more important for a painting to express the artist’s character than to offer a faithful depiction of nature. Here the use of disproportionate scale, multiple perspectives pays homage to a tradition that may be traced back to an earlier literati forbear, the painter Dong Qichang.
This painting (and the one adjacent) comes from an album of four landscape paintings.
It was made in the last decade of the scholar-official Huang Yue’s life, when the Qing dynasty was in decline and government corruption rampant. The two trees growing from oddly shaped rocks allude to historical Chinese paintings depicting twin pines. This tree was often a metaphor for a man of integrity, and a pine damaged by frost and wind suggested his suffering from political oppression. Between the rocks are clusters of thin bamboo leaves that seem to grow without a proper trunk. Since bamboo often represents a gentleman of rectitude, the painting may express the struggle of righteous scholar-officials during the late Qing dynasty.