Index of Selected Artists in the Collection

Yosa Buson (Japanese, 1716 - 1783)
Chinese Historical Figures, Edo period, 1764
Three hanging scrolls, ink and color on silk
Each: 44 1/4 x 14 1/4 in. (112.4 x 36.1 cm)
Mrs. F. F. Prentiss Fund, 1982
AMAM 1982.101A-C

An accomplished poet who began painting seriously relatively late in life, Yosa Buson became one of the most important Nanga artists in eighteenth-century Japan. The intriguing depictions of characters from Chinese history and literature in the Oberlin triptych illustrate many features of Buson's personal style and of Nanga painting in general.

The scroll on the right depicts Yue Fei (1103-1142), a famous general of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Commanded by the emperor Gaozong to resist an army of Jurchen invaders from the north, Yue valiantly led his troops on a counterattack that nearly drove the foreign tribesmen out of China. As a reward for this action, the emperor personally bestowed upon the general a banner inscribed with the words "The dedicated and loyal Yue Fei" (seen here held by the general). For this and other noble deeds, Yue was subsequently canonized by Confucian historians as an icon of loyalty, bravery, and patriotism. The legend of Yue Fei became well-known in both China and Japan.

The central scroll depicts Liu Bei (162-233), Guan Yu (d. 219), and Zhang Fei (d. 220), three generals and statesmen of the later Han dynasty. In this scene they are shown visiting a fourth general and scholar, Zhuge Liang (181-234), to persuade him to abandon retirement and help them establish the kingdom of Shu as successor to the Han. According to legend, they had to plead with him three times before he agreed to join their cause. All four men eventually became archetypal figures of loyalty and valor, and their exploits were popularized in the historical novel Sanguozhi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), which may have provided the inspiration for this painting.

The exact subject of the scroll on the left, which depicts a scholar in a landscape apparently eluding three warriors or brigands, has not yet been firmly identified, but probably represents another episode from a Chinese historical novel.

The three scrolls are not dedicated, so we cannot determine exactly why or for whom Buson painted these images. However, given the nature of the two subjects which can be securely identified, it seems likely that this triptych was painted for a member of the sinophilic Japanese elite who valued the Confucian virtues embodied by the characters depicted in these scrolls.

Dated 1764, the scrolls are from the middle of Buson's artistic career, 1 and reflect the diverse range of sources from which he derived his distinctive style. One important influence for Buson was Chinese Zhe-school painting, which is evident here in the landscape passages, and in the architectural features of the central scroll. Although Zhe-school paintings did not belong to the Chinese "Southern tradition," which Nanga artists like Buson were supposedly following, they were abundent in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japan, and had a major impact on the evolution of Japanese painting at that time.

Chinese woodblock-printed books are another influence evident in the Oberlin scrolls. Nanga artists not only copied the traditional Chinese subjects they found in such books, they also frequently imitated the flat, linear draftsmanship of the books' illustrations. Buson's engagement with this practice is apparent here in the flat, rather schematic rocks and trees, and in the strongly patterned overall design of the scrolls.

A final source of the imagery in the Oberlin scrolls is Muromachi-period (1333-1573) Zen and Tosa-school painting. These influences are most visible here in the squat bodies and distinctive sloping heads of the figures. Buson's ability to combine elements harmoniously from such a broad range of sources explains why his paintings were among the richest and most complex in eighteenth-century Japan.

C. Mason

Yosa Buson was the son of a wealthy farmer in Settsu, a village near Osaka. Raised in relative comfort and well educated as a child, Buson left home in his late teens to study haiku poetry with the famous poet Hayano Hajin (1677-1742) in Edo. After the death of his teacher, Buson spent a decade traveling, during which time he supported himself by writing poems and occasionally painting scrolls. In 1751, Buson settled in the Kyôto region and began to pursue his interest in painting seriously. Over the next twenty years, Buson was deeply engaged with both poetry and painting, and by 1770, he was widely regarded as one of the greatest haiku poets and Nanga painters of the age. The final thirteen years of Buson's life were his most productive, and during this period he produced most of the works for which he is best known today. Upon his death in 1783, Buson was honored with burial in a Kyôto temple near the grave of his spiritual mentor, Japan's greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

General References
Cahill, James. Scholar Painters of Japan: The Nanga School. New York, 1972, pp. 51-68.

French, Calvin L. The Poet-Painters: Buson and his Followers. Ann Arbor, 1974.

Roberts, Laurance P. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists. New York, 1976, pp. 11-12.

With Kososhi Unshodo, of Kyôto, Japan, from whom purchased in 1982



Technical Data
These three hanging scrolls are painted in black sumi ink and colors on silk. All scrolls are in good condition with only minor evidence of previous repairs and retouching. The mounting may be relatively recent. Each painting is signed, dated, and bears two seals of the artist.

1. Buson's life and development as a painter are described in greater detail in Calvin L. French, The Poet-Painters: Yosa Buson and his Followers (Ann Arbor, 1974). A large number of Buson paintings can also be seen in Yoshizawa Chu, Yosa Buson, part of the Nihon Bijutsu Kaiga Zenshu series (Tôkyô, 1980).