Gifts from the Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection

The seven works offered by Mary and Cheney Cowles this year reflect the cultural magnitude of both Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875) and Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924) in different ways. For example, Ōtagaki Rengetsu’s calligraphy work Three Waka Poems displays three poems that summarize her eyewitness account of one of the battles that ruptured Japan during the tumultuous transition from feudal state to modern monarchy. The conflict, known as the battle of Toba-Fushimi, occurred in 1868 and sealed the downfall of the shogunate, restoring imperial rule. Rengetsu represents that moment through her ethereal calligraphy, whose sources of inspiration harken back deep into Japan’s classical past. Similarly, her understudy Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924) captured the raucous and cacophonous atmosphere of one of Kyoto’s most mysterious annual events in the painting Ox Festival. Tessai had resurrected the festival from oblivion using the financial proceeds from his paintings, an act that highlights his fascination with the distant past.

Poem in calligraphy, mounted on a hanging scroll.Three Waka Poems Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875)
Japan, Meiji era, 1869
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
Freer Gallery of Art, F2021.2.2a-d