Sesshu's Life and Works
(The Former Curator of Sesshu Memorial Museum)
Sesshu Memorial Museum features an old form of Japanese ink painting called Suibokuga. This is a monochrome picture painted in India ink.
Ink painting gained popularity in the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) after being brought over from China during the Kamakura period(1185-1333). It was developed hand in hand with the ideals of Zen Buddhism in mind. Sesshu Toyo was responsible for perfecting the Suibokuga Art in Japan. He created his own particular style of painting based on his prior study in China. Sesshu Memorial Museum was established in 1990 to commemorate Sesshu’s deep relationship with the town of Masuda. Inside the museum, you may enjoy his works. Around the building, there are relics symbolic of Sesshu’s life. Many foreigners have visited our museum. Hare are some of their impressions:
[Assistant English teacher from USA]
“Sesshu’s art wonderfully represents the beauty of Japan. The simplicity in his works expresses many aspects of the landscape. Sesshu’s art seems almost effortless. The flow of his brush is very soothing.The environment of the museum is also very calm and relaxing. Thank you for the wonderful hospitality. I will remember my visit here for a long time.”
[A guest from France]
“I enjoyed visiting Sesshu Memorial Hall and particularly appreciated Sesshu’s landscapes painting known well all over the world. Some priests in France have tried to describe nature through their works but they never reached such artistic level. I hope Sesshu’s works will be more and more known in the future and contribute to international culture and peace.”
[Assistant English Teacher from England]
“To be honest, I had never heard of Sesshu Toyo until I visited some friends in Masuda. While we were at their house, we heard the very interesting tale of Sesshu and the mouse. As a result of this tale we all came to visit the memorial hall.When you enter the building there is a very tranquil, peaceful atmosphere that perhaps enhances Sesshu’s art, and adds a very special ‘Zen’ spirit. The overall effect was very refreshing. My only disappointment was that the picture of the mouse was not on exhibition. P.S. The coffee was great! “
1. Sesshu’s life
Professor Shigeyasu Hasumi wrote the following in his report ‘The Study of Sesshu Toyo’, published by Asahi Publishing Company, Tokyo, 1977.
“Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506) is indisputably one of the greatest Zen painters of Japan and has become famed throughout the world. Against the background of the development of Muromachi painting (15th –16th centuries) Sesshu appeared a most brilliant and monumental figure. His style of black ink painting is dynamic and passionate, full of vitality and realism.” In 1955, the World Peace Council held in Vienna, Austria, nominated ten people who made great contributions to world culture and commemorated them. Sesshu was selected as one of them along with Leonardo da Vinci of Italy.
He was born in 1420(Muromachi period) in Okayama Prefecture. At an early age his father sent him to Hofuku Temple near their home. It is a well known tale that once, while being scolded and tied to a pillar in a main hall of the temple, Sesshu drew a picture of a mouse on the floor boards with his own tears. Thus he showed an extraordinary talent for painting even in his early childhood. When he was twelve or thirteen years old, he transferred to Shokoku Temple in Kyoto and was well trained as an acolyte under the head priest of all Zen temples.
In 1467, Sesshu traveled to China with a trade mission dispatched by the Ouchi Family in Yamaguchi. While in China Sesshu did a wall painting in the building of the board of Rites in Peking and made many village sketches. It is said that Sesshu was one of the first Japanese artist to make these types of sketches.
-Biographical Sketch of Sesshu-
1420, age 1: Sesshu was born near Soja City in Okayama Prefecture.
1431, age 12: Entered Shokoku Temple in Kyoto as an acolyte under the head priest:
1451, age 32: Became a pupil of a famous painter-Tensho Shubun, Shokoku Temple.
1462, age 43: Adopted the pen name Sesshu Toyo because of his admiration of the calligraphy
of the Chinese Zen master: Bonki Soseki (Yuan dynasty).
1464, age 45: Stayed temporary at Unkoku-an in Yamaguchi.
1467, age 48: Onin Civil War broke out in Kyoto (1467-1477). Sesshu landed at Ningpo in China as one of members of a Japanese envoy to Ming. China. Honored with the top position among the Priest of the Ching-te-ssu Temple at T’ien-t’ung-shan during his sojourin in Ming China.
1468, age 49: He did a wall painting in the building of the Board of Rites in Beijing.
He painted “Landscape of Four Seasons”, four scrolls (Tokyo National Museum),
signature ‘Toyo, Japanese Zen Priest.
1469, age 50: He returned from China to Japan. But the war prevented him from returning
to his Unkoku-an in Yamaguchi. He started to travel through the northern
part of Japan.
1471,age 52: Painted “Landscape, after the manner of Hsiakuei”, two scrolls.
1472 age 53: Painted “Yu-wang-chan-ssu; Chin-shan-ssu Temple”
1476 age 57: Built a new studio called “Tengaitogaro” while staying in Oita and paints
“View of China Waterfall”.
1478, age 59:Came to our town, Masuda, and entered Sukanji Temple and made spiritual gardens called ‘Sesshu Teien(Gardens)’ at two temples in the town. They were designated as places of historical and scenic interest by the government.
1479, age 60:“The Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka.” Inscription by Chikushin Shutei, dated
November 15, 1479. Important National Cultural Property.
1483, age 64: “The Birds and Flowers of Four Seasons”. A pair of screens. These pictures
were painted in celebration of the 17th Lord Munekane succeeding a house
of the Masuda Family.
Masuda Kanetaka was the 15th Feudal Lord of the Masuda Family. Sesshu left the Unkokuan in Yamaguchi, late in his life with a longing for Masuda. He respected for the noble sprit of the feudal lord Masuda Kanetaka who devoted his life to culture and peace through his religious belief of the Zen sect. This picture is what Masuda city purchased from the owner at the price of one hundred million yen. This is a collection of the Sesshu Memorial Museum, Masuda city.
1484, age 65: “The portrait of Sue Hiromori”.
1486,age 67: His masterpiece “Handscroll of Landscape of Four Seasons”(National Treasure)
at his studieo in Yamaguchi, Unkoku-an.
1490, age 71: Paints “Self-Portrait of Sesshu” and gave to his apprentice, Shugetsu.
1495, age 76: “Landscape” known as “Haboku Sansui” (splashed-ink landscape) and gives to his apprentice, Soen. Collection of Tokyo National Museum, Sesshu’s best-known work.
1496, age 77: “Priest Hui-k’o Cutting Off His Arm”. Collection of Sainenji Temple.
1501, age 82: “View of Ama-no-Hashidate” Collection of Kyoto National Museum.(National
1502, age 83: Entered Tokoji Temple in Masuda.
1506, age 87: Died at Tokoji Temple. In his days, we’ve heard that the average life
span in Europe was thirtyfour years old. We can say that Sesshu lived out
the allotted span of his life.
Sesshu was an active ink painter during the second half of the 15th century. This period was considered to be the golden age of arts and letters, and greatly influenced of Japanese culture. Suibokuga ( ink painting ) was particularly popular in this period. As a result Sesshu has been considered a master Japanese ink painter. At this time, Europe was experiencing a transition from Byzantine Art Period (continued ten centuries) to Renaissance Art before Baroque Art.
This is an excerpt from “Japan (An Illustrated Encyclopedia)”, published by Kodansha Ltd., Tokyo:(First edition, 1993): “Sesshu is best known for his landscapes. His works are characterized by dynamic brushwork and structured composition, a clear departure from the Lyrical mode associated with Shubun.
Sesshu’s best well-known work is Haboku Sansuizu (1495, Haboku Landscape). Other noteworthy pieces are his sketch of “Ama-no-hashidate”(ca 1501), a pair of hanging scrolls entitled Shuto sansuizu(Autumn and Winter Landscapes), and a horizontal hand scroll entitled Sansui chokan(1486, Landscape). Sesshu also painted portraits and other figure subjects, and his versatility extended to the genre of BIRD AND FLOWER PAINTING. He had many disciples (including JOSUI SOEN and SHUGETSU TOKAN), and the UNKOKU SCHOOL of painters later claimed stylistic descent from him.
① Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka
Seal-mark “Sesshu “ , age 60
Inscription by Shutei
Dated November 15, A.D.1479
Hanging scroll, 82.8×40.9cm, Painted in colors on paper National Impor45tant Cultural Property
This picture was paint in traditional Japanese-style painting dating back to the Heian Period(794-1185) This portrait is considered Sesshu’s greatest work. The picture represents accurately a graceful figure of Masuda Kanetaka-the 15th Feudal lord of the Masuda Family. Simplistically, his elegant use of ink line shows the Lord’s high natural virtue which stirs one’s emotions. In fact, his line is very warm and beautiful. People say that masterpieces have graceful dignity. Clearly this portrait is one of his masterpieces. We are greatly moved to know that the supreme landscape painter- Sesshu observes and respects the conventions of Japanese-style paintings. We can see seven colors used in the painting such as crimson, flesh tint, brown, blue, green, white and black. Sesshu says that it was from Li-tsai and Chang Yusheng that he learned the technique of “ink splash” and colors during his visit to China. It was Sesshu who first painted a colored landscape in Japan.
② Flowers and Birds of Four Season
Pair of six-hold screens
Painted in colors on paper, 181.6 × 375.2m
National Important Cultural Property
Sesshu painted this picture in celebration of the 17th Feudal Lord Munekane’s succession to the house of the Masuda Family. We can see cranes, bamboos, and a pine tree on the right-hand screen, and an old plum tree and a white snowy heron on the left-hand side. He magnificently expresses the changes of the four seasons. There are about twenty pictures that were painted for folding screens. This is his best work among them. The reason why he paints a pine, bamboo and plum tree in the painting is:
In Japan, putting these three names of the trees together makes the phrase ‘shokibarai’ which is the symbolic expression of success. Especially, the pine, the symbolic tree for Japan, is often drawn in the background of Japanese-style paintings. In Japan, cranes are also valued especially as animals symbolizing long life and are often used for festive designs and decorations.
We call a folding screen ‘Byobu’ in Japanese. This type of screen was used for protection from the wind or for privacy in old days. Introduced first from Silla(668-917) in Korea in Nara period (710-784). The folding screen at the time consisted of six or four panels with wooden frames that were connected by strings. In the Heian period the panels were connected with hinges. In the Kamakura and Muromachi periods the hinges were replaced by paper ones. The panels were decorated with paintings or calligraphic writings. (this item on Byobu is from ‘A Dictionary of Japanese Art Terms’, published by Tokyo Art.) Both sides are covered with paper, only one side has classical Japanese paintings with gold and silver leaf. Presently, with the exception of wedding ceremonies, folding screens are no longer used in daily life.
③ Copy of A View of Yamadera
A reproduction by Kano TsunenobuInscriptions by four high priests
Edo Period (1603-1867) Hanging Scroll
Ink Painting on paper, 109×35cm
The word ‘Yamadera’ of the title means a temple in a mountain. This is
a sketch Sesshu made of Tokoji Temple in Masuda. (Dated 1497, age 60) He
created a genial rural scene. His expression of ink painting is dynamic
and passionate such a calm painting is rare and very nice. Typical Japanese
houses have guest rooms which are usually designed with an alcove. A scroll
– a painting or a poem written in beautiful calligraphy is displayed there.
The painting ‘A view of Yamadera’ is a hanging scroll. Hanging scrolls were introduced to Japan in the early Heian period in the form of Buddhist paintings from the Asian continent. During the late Muromachi period, scrolls designed with landscapes, flowers and birds, and figures were traditionally displayed in the alcove of the guest room.
In conclusion, we respect Sesshu for his sincerity and passion. We are
very proud of Sesshu who created a Japanese style of ink painting which
can still be felt in contemporary Japanese art. Sesshu is, we believe,
the world’s supreme ink painter.