Who was the artist?
This painting depicts an imaginary landscape in springtime by one of Japan’s best known women artists from the Edo period—Ike Gyokuran. Like her mother and grandmother before her, Ike Gyokuran was a renowned poet. Her given name was Machi, but she later took the artistic name Gyokuran, written with the Chinese characters meaning “jade orchid,” and later “jade wave.” Her father was a member of the samurai class, but her parents were separated when her father was called away from Kyoto to Edo. Her mother is said to have reminded her: “Your father was a samurai. You must respect yourself as a woman— never look down on yourself!”1 Her grandmother, Kaji (active in the early 1700s), ran a teahouse called Matsuya in the historic Gion entertainment district of Kyoto.
Gyokuran’s mother inherited the shop, raising her daughter amongst the fascinating Kyoto clientele. Gyokuran learned waka poetry from her mother and began to study painting with one of Japan’s first literati (Nanga) painters, Yanagisawa Kien (1706–1758) at around age 10. She married the famous literati painter Ike Taiga (1723–1776) in 1746, and together they devoted their lives to creating poetry and painting, learning from and encouraging one another. Gyokuran’s painting was profoundly influenced by her husband, who made painting manuals for her to study. They were both included in a book of famous eccentrics called the Kinsei kijin den (Legends of Eccentrics in Recent Times, 1790). The image illustrating their entry depicts the couple in simple clothes playing music together amongst a jumble of paintings, calligraphy, and brushes. Taiga, unshaven and grinning, strums a lute. Gyokuran plays the koto. They cared little for money, living a simple life with earnings from their calligraphy and painting.
- Explore the role of women in Edo society. Ike Gyokuran and Otagaki Rengetsu were unconventional women in a highly structured society. You may like to introduce and discuss Student Handout 2 (see "Downloads" above) as part of this discussion. They both associated with other unconventional or eccentric people, which provided a nurturing environment for them to develop as artists and poets. What are the expected roles for men and women in US society? Do the roles change depending on generation, where people come from, the region of the country they live in, or their religious beliefs? Think about eccentric people you have known. What made them different? Was their eccentricity valued or not?
- This painting by Gyokuran is drawn from her imagination. Have students imagine walking through this painting, and write an essay of their experience. Where would you go? Who would you meet? What smells are in the air, what sounds can you hear? Would you stop for a picnic, go fishing, or take a boat ride? Would you climb one of the mountains?
Fister, Patricia. Japanese Women Artists 1600–1900. Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, 1988, p. 74.1