[Wisteria Maiden] by Tessai/ Rengetsu

Based on a classical tale adapted into a popular Kabuki performance in late Edo, the story of the Fuji Musume or “Wisteria Maiden” is an often employed motif in Japanese art. In the story, the Wisteria Maiden is depicted in a painting holding a wisteria branch, until one day she becomes smitten with a young man passing by and steps out of the painting in an effort to capture his attention. Unfortunately, her attempts are futile. Her love goes unrequited, and she sorrowfully steps back into the two-dimensional world of her lonely painting—still holding her weeping wisteria. The artwork on the scroll shown here is by talented painter Tomioka Tessai.

Tessai (1836-1924) is often referred to as the last great literati painter in Japan. Born in Kyoto, from a young age he was educated in Chinese philosophy and literature under the guidance of Okuni Tadamasa. Later he would be active as a Shinto priest, scholar and extremely prolific painter who would travel the countryside in search of new themes for his grand landscape paintings. Today he continues to be held in high regard for his unique stylistic form, frequent use of bold and contrasting colors, and for his monumental body of work which includes not only captivating Nanga depictions of picturesque landscapes (for which he is most well-know) but also of historical episodes, literary scenes, and religious imagery.

The poem that accompanies the artwork is by Otagaki Rengetsu. Rengetsu was born into a Samurai family but soon after was adopted by the Otagaki family. From the age of seven to sixteen she was a lady in waiting at Kameoka castle where she was trained in the arts and courtly graces. Due to her rumored great beauty she married at a young age but after the death of her husband in 1823, she joined the temple Chion-in and became a nun, taking Rengetsu (Lotus Moon) as her Buddhist name.

Rengetsu is widely regarded as one of the greatest waka poets of the 19th century. A skilled Shijo School painter, she was also an accomplished calligrapher and potter. She admired and studied under a number of great poets including Ozawa Roan and Ueda Akinari, and later in life became a close friend and mentor to Tomioka Tessai—later to become a great artist in his own right and the composer of the painting shown above.

The poem reads:

Inishie no, teburi yukashiki, utsushie no, yo ni nagare taru, fujinami no hana

Floating out into the world, from a painting, with ancient and enchanting, gestures of the hands… waves of wisteria blossoms.

Sumi and color on Japnanese paper with a silk border, this hanging scroll is 70 inches tall (179 cm) and 11.5 inches wide (29 cm). The artwork on the scroll is 39 inches tall (99 cm) and 8 inches wide (20 cm). In fine antique condition, this piece comes with a box inscribed 耕雲堂 荘 (Koundo-sou). International shipping and insurance included in the price.