Outcroppings of rock rise above the level of the water, supporting trees and buildings and connected by bridges. In the distance across an expanse of water appears a village at the foot of hills that extend on the left to a mountain peak. Painted mainly in tones of black and white, the painting suggests the harsh season of winter, with the grey sky manifesting the overcast days of that season. Strong accents of dark ink animate the pictorial surface and distinguish this painting from many other works of the Nanga school. The pavilion and bridge often appear in landscapes of Matsushima, which thus might have provided the basic iconograpy of the present painting.
Sugai Gaku (1784-1844), called Baikan, was born in Sendai into an old family which had become merchants during his great-grandfather’s generation. As the eldest son, Baikan should have become head of the family when his father died in 1803 but he had already become enamored of painting and thus yielded that responsible position to his younger brother. Few important painters were then active in Sendai, so Baikan studied on his own and also with a visiting artist, Nemoto Jonan. From 1805 onward Baikan was also closely associated with the monk Nanzan Koryo, who recognized the young man’s talent and supported his aspirations as an artist. In 1809 Baikan contributed illustrations for a book Nanzan had written on their joint travels and in 1811 he executed a temple painting in Gunma together with Jonan, who died shortly thereafter and was buried by his former student.
Baikan had recognized his need for advanced training and greater stimulation than was available in the Tohoku region and hence traveled to Edo, where he thought to study with the most renowned master at that time, Tani Buncho (1763-1840). Buncho, of course, was a very eclectic artist, capable of working in an incredible range of styles, but Baikan is said to have felt that Bunchowas too much influenced by a contemporaneous taste for paintings of the Northern or professional school. There is no evidence for how Baikan was perceived at this time but he was, after all, accustomed to a certain amount of respect and, at age twenty-five or so, he may not have been willing to play a subordinate role in Buncho’s flourishing studio.
In any case, Baikan soon left Edo for Kyoto with the support of Nanzan and other friends from Sendai. In Kyoto Baikan dedicated himself to studying and copying the old master paintings available to him in temples and shrines and at the imperial court. Baikan also saw and was greatly impressed by the refined nature of a landscape fan he came upon that was signed “Chia-p’u.” On being told that this was the Chinese master Chiang Ta-lai, then resident in the port city of Nagasaki, Baikan determined to go there at once and seek him out.
Baikan lived in Nagasaki and traveled in Kyushu for about a decade, studying with Chiang Ta-lai not so much the techniques of painting but rather the literati lineage of artists and styles as those were revealed in texts and illustrated books. The present painting of 1816 was done while Baikan was in Nagasaki and may have been based on one of Chiang’s paintings or on continental material made available to him by Chiang. The style of the paintings of blossoming plums for which he became famed was developed during this period, and his enthusiasm for the subject inspired him to adopt a new by-name, Baikan, meaning “dwelling with plum-blossoms.” When Chiang Ta-lai returned to China, he carried with him a painting of blossoming plum he had requested from Baikan. Sometime later Chiang sent his Japanese student and friend a poem about plum blossoms, moving Baikan to change his name to Baikan meaning “intimate with plum-blossoms.” A number of sketches and paintings done by Baikan about this time testify to his unusual experiences in Nagasaki, including seeing an elephant, or perhaps only an illustration of one. When Baikan left Nagasaki in 1822, his friends there gave him a grand send-off. In a painting done by Araki Kunsen on that occasion, the figure dancing gracefully in the center is Baikan himself, the four men wearing red hats are Chinese friends, and the four literati arts of music, chess, calligraphy, and painting were all practiced at the farewell party. Part of the results include an extant album, painted by the son of Chiang Chia-p’u and other Chinese and Japanese artists, which demonstrates the high level of competency attained within this group of Nagasaki literati.
After Baikan arrived in Osaka, he quickly became a member of the Kyoto literati circle of Rai San’yo (1780-1832). He also associated with such bunjin as Shinozaki Shochiku (1781-1851) and Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835) while continuing his earlier friendly relationships with Takaku Aigai (1796-1843, Ichikawa Beian (1779-1858), and Okubo Shibutsu (1766-1837). Within two years his name was listed in the Naniwa Kinran Shu and later in the Zoku Naniwa Kyoyu Roku and Shinkoku Naniwa Jinbutsu Shi as a painter of the upper class. This exciting period came to an end in 1828 when he received a letter from his younger brother saying that he had lost his eyesight and could no longer care for their mother, who was ill. Baikan returned home in 1829 to find that his mother had already died; he remained for mourning and never again left Sendai for any extended period of time. Around the year 1833 Baikan again began to serve the Date clan as a painter. His reputation continued to grow, and when Takaku Aigai published his Kinsei Gaka Kafu, “Evaluation of Artists of the Contemporary Period,” Baikan’s work was evaluated at 75 ryo. Aigai visited Baikan in 1834 and presented him with a painting.
During the last twenty years of his career, Baikan, who remained a bachelor throughout his life, associated with literati of the Tohoku, Joetsu, and Kanto regions. A diary he kept for a short time records a fascinating round of poetry parties, visits to temples for parties and masses, painting and drinking parties, and visits with such old families as the Tamamushi during which he painted, drank, and played chess. During the late 1830s and early 40s Sendai suffered a number of disasters, first an earthquake, then storms and floods, and then famine. The Date and other clans incurred great financial losses, and this may have affected Baikan’s position with the clan. The end of his life was marred by discussions with family members over housing and finances, and, faced with a personal financial crisis, he ended his life by drowning himself in a well at age sixty. A portrait of Baikan painted in 1858 by the son of his close friend Azuma Toyo and inscribed with an eulogy written by Shochiku shows him in scholar’s robe with fan and brush in hand—a true literatus to the end.
1. For this and the following paintings mentioned here, see Kaikodo Journal III, Spring, 1997, cat. 63, p. 182.