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Tanomura Chokunyu 竹翁居

“Living Quietly among Withered Trees” 1885

Hanging scroll, ink on silk
143.1 x 50.8 cm. (56 3/8 x 20 in.)

Inner box:
“In February of the year 1888, the 21st of the Meiji era, I personally inscribed the lid of the box in the Saikan Senekiro in Heian (Kyoto) for Mr. Shimizu Shuho. The four-hundred-thirty-two jiazi old man, the Mountain Woodcutter Chokunyu, called Denchi (“Fool of the Fields”).”

Collector’s seal:
Soke-an shushu (“Collected by Soken-an,” Matsumoto Matsuzo, 1870-1936, a famous collector).

“Recluses strived to cut off social relations.
throwing away worldly things and having peaceful sleep;
Don’t say one day is like a thousand years,
you don’t know the end of your life is after how many years.
With regulation life is extended, joined with trees and rocks,
achieving one’s ideas in painting, comrade to clouds and mist;
Relaxed by a window I sing to the moon and flowers below,
wondering if I have transformed into an immortal.

I made this poem and painting in August of the year 1885, the eighteenth of the Meiji era, at the Secluded Valley Studio in Saikyo (Kyoto).”


The poem and the painting are perfectly paired, with the subject, mood, and sentiments of the one in full accord with those of the other. In a simple thatched-roof house situated on the bank of a curving river, a solitary recluse sits in contemplation, a vase beside him and bamboo and a blossoming plum just outside. The sense of isolation and seclusion is heightened by the mountain peaks towering above, with clouds interspersed to emphasize their massiveness. The brushwork is highly skilled and the complex composition well organized and integrated, all the characteristics of a work by a master of his craft.

Tanomura Chokunyu (1814-1907) was born in Takeda Village in Bungo province, the third son of Sannomiya Denuemon, a samurai of the Oka clan. His uncle, Watanabe Hoto (1752?-1833), also served the Oka clan, and, since Hoto was teacher of Tanomura Chikuden (1777-1835), whose father also served the Oka family, it was natural that the young Chokunyu studied with Chikuden, and, at the age of eight, the child prodigy was adopted by his teacher. After the death of his teacher, Chokunyu studied with great intensity the Chinese paintings then in Japan, so his works varied greatly in style depending on the source he was following.

Chokunyu was also a poet in Chinese style, a student of Chinese Neo-Confucianism and Zen practices, the Japanese tea ceremony, incense burning, and the use of swords and spears–a truly well-rounded literatus. Chokunyu also helped establish the Kyoto Municipal School of Fine Arts and Crafts and was its first director. In 1896 Chokunyu established the Nihon Nanga Kyokai in cooperation with Tomioka Tessai and Taniguchi Aizen. A major leader of the Nanga movement during the Meiji era, Chokunyu was frequently a juror for exhibitions and had numerous pupils–all in all a most worthy follower of his master, Chikuden. Some critics, forgetting the great achievements of Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924), have termed Chokunyu the last of the great literati masters of Japan.


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