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Ito Hakusai 伊藤白歳

“Poetry Immortals Preparing Dengaku Tofu” 1791

Hanging scroll, ink on paper
45.6 x 56.2 cm. (17 7/8 x 22 1/4 in.)

“Old man Hakusai at the age of 73 sai.”

Artist’s seals
Ito; To

Jakuchu to Buson, Suntory and Miho Museums, 2015, cat. 170 p. 205;
Tsuji Nobuo: Jakuchu, Tokyo, 1973, fig. 61;
Jakuchu, Tokyo National Museum, 1971, cat. 77.

(NOTE: Further information, including box inscription, is provided below the detailed images.)



Box lid inscription:
白歳翁 田楽?図
“Hakusai-old man Dengaku painting.”


Box label:
墨画 「鶯谷庵」
“Ito Hakusai, Jakuchu’s younger brother, painted this dengaku picture in ink.”
Seal: Okoku-an [perhaps the seal of Katsu Kukichi, father of the author Katsu Kaishu (1802-1850)].


A male figure in court dress wields a knife to slice blocks of tofu. His female companion skewers the slices, perhaps topping them with miso or shoyu, and then grills them to delicious perfection. The two, elegantly-clad figures have been identified as Kuoronushi above and Komachi below, famous poets of the 9th century and in the 10th century included among the Rokkasen, “Six Immortal Poets.” Tofu, fermented soybeans, is of course the most common vegetable in China and Japan, conveying no social status whatsoever; there is thus a humorous discrepancy between the illustrious protagonists of the painting and their activities.

Although the composition is simple, the visual impact is complex. The figures are placed on a dynamic, rising diagonal, a measure of tension that is supported by the contrast between the unmodulated areas of black and the linear delicacy of the cutting table and the grill. The artist’s command of the full range of his brush and ink, and his emphasis on the formal elements of the painting, identify the painter as a member of the Literati and Nanga school of painting.

Ito Hakusai was the younger brother of the famous artist Ito Jakuchu [1716-1800). Both were the sons of a wealthy vegetable dealer, Hokusai being the fifth in the lineage. His name, Hakusai, literally means White (or Japanese) Cabbage. An interesting comparison can be made between the present “Poetry Immortals Preparing Tofu” and a work by Jakuchu 2 years later, “Six Immortal Poets,” which adds the pleasures of music and wine to the two figures preparing tofu. Hakusai’s composition is more focused, and the execution is at least the equal of Jakuchu’s painting.

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