YOSA BUSON (1716–1784)

White Horse and Grooms

Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk; 43⅛ x 19¼ in. (109.5 x 48.9 cm); dated Hōreki 10 (1760), Signed: Shachōkō; sealed: Kaidai ni chiki sonsureba (and yet, while China holds our friendship) and Tansei shite rō ni itaran to suru wo shirazu (I don’t think about getting old as I paint), Inscription: Konoetatsu [kōshin] no haru ni Heianjō [no] sumi [ni aru] Sanka-ken [no] naka [ni] utsu[shita] (Painted in the spring of 1760, at Sanka-ken in the corner of Heianjō (Kyoto)), Published: Sakaki Johei, et al. 2001. Buson: sono futatsu no tabi (Buson: his two journeys). Exh. cat. Tokyo and Osaka: Asahi Newspaper Company in association with the Edo/Tokyo Museum and the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, no. 38, p. 78

Unlike Gion Nankai (1676−1751) and Yanagisawa Kien (1704−1758), both early practitioners of Nanga (Southern pictures, from their Chinese designation), the poet-painter Yosa Buson was of humble birth and had no claim to the rank of scholar-official. Nevertheless, he educated himself about Chinese learning and literary traditions, and combined this knowledge with his own poetic sensibility to develop one of the most lyrical and moving bodies of work in the corpus of Nanga painting. Many of his early years were spent studying, writing poetry, and traveling, and it was not until he was well into middle age that he evolved his own, unique painting style.

The subject and treatment of horses and their handlers derives originally from Chinese examples introduced to Japan through the Chinese painter Shen Quan (J: Shen Nanpin, 1682−1760?). A regional artist from Wuxing in Zhejiang province who specialized in traditional bird-and-flower painting, Shen Quan came to the Japanese port city of Nagasaki at the invitation of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun, to produce scrolls in a classical imperial court style. He ended up staying for almost two years (1731−33). He typically painted vertical hanging scrolls on silk with animals, birds, flowering plants, and trees as his subjects. Slight modeling effects added a degree of realism to the compositions. Shen Quan’s students quickly spread what came to be known as the Nagasaki School of painting throughout Japan, and Buson, now residing in Kyoto, came under his influence, as did other Kyoto artists such as Itō Jakuchū (1716−1800) and Maruyama Ōkyo (1733−95).

In the early 1760s Buson made a number of horse paintings on scrolls and screens inspired by Shen Quan’s Chinese models, to which he added his own idiosyncratic details. He declared on one painting: “For the horses I studied the style of Shen Nanpin, but the human figures are my own invention.”1 These works culminated with a pair of six-panel screens of grazing horses in a meadow dated Hōreki 13 (1763), now housed in the Kyoto National Museum. The white horse and the tree in the present painting provide the basis for the composition of fourth panel from the right of the left of these screens.

1. Quoted in Yonezawa Yoshiho and Yoshizawa Chu. 1974. Japanese Painting in the Literati Style. New York/Tokyo: Weatherhill, Heibonsha, p. 68, 69.
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