From an autumnal tree crows fly upward to join the main group flying above. The somewhat awkward and abrupt lines of the tree contrast with the more elegant strokes of the reeds in the river and the texture strokes of the rocks and mountains above. The painting is successful as an image, with much visual interest, and is also compelling from a technical point of view, derived from the variety of textures and brushwork that animate the painting.
Yamanaka Seittsu (1822-1885), who preferred to be called Shinten’o, was born near Nagoya in the village of Higashiura, the second son of a wealthy farming family.1 Beginning his studies in Osaka with the noted scholar Shinozaki Shochiku (1781-1851), he moved after the death of his teacher to Kyoto where he became member of the anti-bakufu movement along with Yanagawa Seigan (1789-1858), and Rai San’yo’s third son, Mikisaburo (1825-1859).2 After the 1858 repression, during which many opposition figures were arrested and executed, Shinten’o went to Ise and studied with Saito Setsudo (1791-1865) for three years before returning to Kyoto. Shinten’o became an active patron of imperial loyalists, providing food and money to the troops fighting in the Fushimi area during the first month of 1868 as the new regime established itself.
In recognition of his support of Imperial forces, Shinten-o was appointed to a series of posts during the next six years. Official travels took him frequently to Tokyo and also Sendai. Retiring in 1873, Shinten’o lived in the Shimogamo area of Kyoto and also built a large villa at Arashiyama. This was an ideal location for literati gatherings, wit h an excellent view of the spring cherry blossoms and autumn maple leaves. So well regarded was it that the Meiji Emperor stayed there during his 1877 visit to Kyoto. Called to Tokyo in 1885 for consultations with officials of the Imperial Household, Shinten’o abruptly became sick and died.
Shinten’o seems to have been largely self- taught as an artist. The characters for Shinten’o can also be pronounced abodori, “stupid bird,” matching the English slang term of “gooney bird” for the albatross. The awkward stumbling and hopping gait of the albatross on land gives rise to these pejorative terms for a bird that is astonishingly elegant when gliding at high altitudes, forming an interesting metaphor for the awkward but inspiring creations of a self-taught painter.
1. For excellent biographies of Shinten’o see Stephen Addiss: “Yamanaka Shinten’o,” in Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 48, no. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 315-336, and Paul Berry: “Yamanaka Shinten’o,” in Otsu City Museum of History: Unexplored Avenues of Japanese Painting, The Hakutakuan Collection, 2001, pp. 157-9.
2. Most of the material related here was drawn from the article by Paul Berry.