Waves at Matsushima

Hundreds of craggy islands distinguish Matsushima, an area long revered as one of Japan’s three most beautiful views (Nihon sankei). Matsuo Bashō (1664–1694), a poet highly esteemed as a master of haiku, praised the scenic islands in his travel writings in 1689. The other sites are Amanohashidate, a dramatic sandbar covered with pine trees located north of the ancient capital of Kyoto, and Itsukushima, situated farther south towards Hiroshima on the Inland Sea, where it is recognized for its large red Shinto shrine gate.

These two screens, decorated with islands amid stylized golden waves, are among the most important works by Tawaraya Sōtatsu. The artist was a commoner in Kyoto who gained the unprecedented favor of aristocratic patrons in the seventeenth century. (Such patronage was typically reserved for court artists through heredity.) Tani Shōan (1589–1644), a wealthy merchant in Sakai, near Osaka, may have commissioned these screens. Shōan presented them to a new Buddhist temple that was completed in 1628 and whose construction he had financed. Over the years the temple was called Zuisenji and Shōun’an, and finally in 1639 it received its current name of Shōunji.

In thanks, the temple’s founding priest, Takuan Sōhō (1573–1646), bestowed on Shōan the honorific Buddhist name Kaigan, which means “seacoast.” This might account for the subject matter of these historically significant screens, which are among the most important works in the museum’s collection. The Tani family is said to have called them Araisozu (“rocky coast with wild waves paintings”), and it is easy to see how this scenery can be associated with the pine-covered islands of Matsushima.

You can see these screens in even greater detail at Google’s Art project:
left screen | right screen

Waves at Matsushima
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–1640)
Japan, 17th century
Pair of six-panel folding screens
Ink, color, gold, and silver on paper
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art F1906.231 and F1906.232

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