Written on box lid: ”Hard-working People. Inscribed by Tetsu-shi (Tessai) himself.”
Paper label on side of box recording the 1933 Kyoto auction number.
“With rent halved and taxes remitted,
men work in the fields, women at spinning;
Like a stream wine is distributed to the old villagers,
in every house they sooth themselves after a year of labor.
Inscribed by Sanya-yajin (Tessai).” [as frontispiece]
“Returning home drunk on harvest day,” Tessai. [at beginning of painting]
“On an autumn day in the year 1873, painted at Oki-chōku. The student Tessai.” [at end of painting]
Colophon following the painting by Rengetsu (1791-1875):
“Everyone has wine and food
during the autumn festival,
drunk and playing,
the gods too are loving it.
Rengetsu at age eighty.”
Twenty-nine men and thirteen boys constitute the homeward bound march of the group, joyous and drunk, celebrants of the harvest festival. Many of the happy figures are supported by the young boys, who also carry the jars, flasks, and gourds of wine. More refined pleasures are suggested by the lute and racks of books carried by some. A crane, symbol of longevity, suggests a most propitious outcome for the festival.
The brushwork is strong and coarse, helping to characterize the group of farmers, far from the elegance and relative sobriety of a literati gathering. Angularity of lineament helps to suggest the effort expended by these workers, whose joyous expressions convey their happiness at the close of the working year and the success of the harvest.
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, Tessai also began painting by the mid 1820s. 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 raised him to write her calligraphy compositions on the wares. Her elegant colophon here was written two years before her death. 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 attractive.