Sixteen figures in the robes of monks ascend a stream-side path to a level clearing in the center of the picture where they will enjoy a picnic with books, scrolls, and probably wine or tea. These are the sixteen arhats, the original disciples of Sakyamuni, who had themselves achieved enlightenment but remained as guardians and exemplars of Buddhism throughout the world. Here they take great and obvious pleasure in their surroundings, which are indeed most impressive both conceptually and technically.
The stable composition is oriented along the horizontal and vertical axes of the pictures. with the forms arranged close to the picture plane save in the upper left, where pictorial space is closed off by a misty valley and distant mountain peaks. Compositional variety is derived in part from diagonals introduced so as to play off the main axes, but most of the dynamism that animates the picture is created by the brushwork. Ranging in tonality from very dark to pale, ranging in nature from dots to broad lines, and in viscosity from very wet to dry, the brush strokes are organized in a great variety of textures and enrich the work while yet maintaining perfect clarity. The painting is one of the artist’s masterpieces, and fully justifies the very high regard in which he is held today. Thirty-nine years after this work was painted, and ten years after the painter had died, his family included this painting in a volume intended to honor the highest achievements of the artist.
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 ser ved 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. By the end of the first decade of the Meiji era, the period during which the present work was painted, he clearly had established his own distinctive style.
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.