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Herons and reeds

Herons and reeds

Herons and reeds, attributed to Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856). Japan; Edo Period (1615-1868). Hanging Scroll; ink and colors on paper. The Avery Brundage Collection, B65D14.


Bird and flower compositions of all styles were particularly popular in Japan where intimate, lyrical views of nature were favored in painting, decorative arts, and poetic imagery. In this picture by Yamamoto Baiitsu, the viewer enjoys a close-up view of the complexity and richness of life at the water's edge. One can imagine that it won't be long before the heron snags the small fish or frog it is intensely hunting. Baiitsu was an accomplished artist of the Nanga School, but also a very sensitive observer of nature. In his paintings he is interested in capturing artistically how plants grow, bend, and even wither. He notices and records the forms, movement, and spirit of the birds. His experience of Chinese models for painting came from actual paintings recently imported to Japan, rather than from the copy books and theoretical writings which were so influential with other nanga painters. Working from examples of both professional and amateur styles, he acquired a dazzling mastery of Chinese brushwork techniques.

These reeds, lotuses, and herons combine in a xieyi style with artfully applied ink and color washes. Although the overall effect is loose and free, much of the painting has been created with a carefully controlled use of washes in a modified boneless style similar to Yun Bing's. Outlines are not drawn, but their appearance is effectively evoked by the pooling of two layers of wash at the edge of the forms. Tarashikomi, a particularly Japanese technique that gives a mottled color effect, has been used on the floating water plants and reeds. In this wet-on-wet technique, small or generous amounts of color or darker ink are dropped onto a layer of wash that is still wet. The color spreads a bit and only partially blends with the undercoat. Fluid orchid-leaf lines describe the contours of the necks of the herons; nail-head rat-tail lines outline the wing feathers, and dry brush strokes indicate the soft feathers of his body. The delicate flower heads of the reeds were also painted with a dry or split-brush technique.

About the Artist
Yamamoto Baiitsu was born in Nagoya and returned there to paint for the Tokugawa rulers after a period of travel and study in Kyoto and Edo. Through his early training he learned modes of decorative composition in the Kano School and to paint from observation of nature in the Maruyamo-Shijo School. While still in Nagoya he became friends with a slightly older painter of the Nanga School and travelled with him to study Ming and Qing painting in a circle of literati painters in Kyoto. Although his early training influenced his painting style, he was primarily a Nanga artist, painting ink landscapes as well as more decorative bird and flower pictures.

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