Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924) was the last great proponent of the Nanga literati style. He was born in Kyoto, the son of a wealthy dealer in priests’ robes. When the family fortunes declined, Tessai was sent to live at the Rokuson’o Shrine, where he studied Shinto as well as Buddhism, Confucianism, and classical Japanese literature. Although intending to become a scholar, by the mid 1820s Tessai also began painting. The most important early influence came from Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), a talented poet-nun who hired Tessai as a personal assistant for her ceramic endeavors and later promoted him to writing her calligraphic compositions on the wares. Basically, Tessai was self-taught as an artist, using the various classic and contemporary styles he came across to form his own, very idiosyncratic style.
Associated with those working for the imperial Restoration, Tessai fled to Nagasaki in 1859 in order to escape arrest and while there began serious study of Nanga painting. Enormously prolific, the “Picasso of the East,” Tessai largely portrayed subjects taken from Chinese and Japanese classical literature and legend. His style was very individual, with strong and expressive brushwork and color applied in a free and bold fashion. The element of humor is often important in his paintings, and the effect, as here, is extremely engaging.