Two well-known themes from the Chinese literati tradition are rendered here in impeccable technique with admirable concerns for verisimilitude and conservative pictorial values. Brush and inkwork vary from one to the other of the pair, creating visual tension while yet satisfying our desire for variety and complexity. The artist’s control of his brush and ink identifies him as a true master of his craft.
Born in Nagoya, the son of a sculptor who served the Owari or Nagoya branch of the Tokugawa clan, Baiitsu early on evidenced talent in painting and studied with Yamamoto Rantei (active mid-19th century), a local Kano school painter, and then with Cho Gessho (1722-1832).1 But it was likely his relationship with Kamiya Ten’yu, a wealthy merchant and collector of old paintings, that gave greatest impetus to the development of Baiitsu’s career. In company with his close friend Nakabayashi Chikuto (1776-1853), Baiitsu studied early paintings and was introduced to the literati arts and values by Ten’yu and his circle of friends.
After the death of Ten’yu, Baiitsu and Chikuto moved to Kyoto, in 1803, and quickly became acquainted with literati circles and activities in that city. Although Baiitsu periodically returned to Nagoya, he was mainly in Kyoto during the period 1832-1854. The assured technique, the great beauty, and the accessibility of this pair of paintings suggest some of the reasons for his great success in Kyoto, which could not but arouse the jealousy of other painters.
It was undoubtedly one of these who commissioned for a large sum of money a painting on silk from Baiitsu, who naturally complied with the request at once. Somewhat later Baiitsu was invited by the same person to a banquet in Gion where they were entertained by a geisha. As she danced, her silk underclothes could be seen to have been painted by Baiitsu, who thus undeservedly earned the unsavory reputation of being willing to paint anything for money. His friend Chikuto sought to console him with a punning rhyme that made light of the event—”From this day for ward we too will look at flowers in the capital, mountain-grown plums (i.e. Baiitsu himself) from my home town”—but in 1853 Chikuto died, leaving Baiitsu with nothing to prevent his return home in humiliation. Once there, however, under the patronage of the Owari clan, Baiitsu was sought out by students and received the remuneration and honor that were his well earned due.
1. For a complete biography of Baiitsu and analysis of his varied contributions to the literati movement, see Patricia Jane Graham: Yamamoto Baiitsu: His Life, Literati Pursuits, and Related Paintings, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kansas, 1983.