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Willow Tree, approx. 1800-1900

Willow Tree

Willow Tree, approx. 1800-1900. By Otagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875). Japan. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Gift of the Connoisseur’s Council and J. Sanford and Constance Miller, The Avery Brundage Collection, 1990.213

Who was Rengetsu?
This slide shows the calligraphy of Otagaki Rengetsu’s waka poem. Rengetsu is celebrated as one of Kyoto’s eminent poet/artists from the late Edo period, popular then as she is now among collectors. She was born in Kyoto and lived a fascinating, but difficult life. Soon after her birth, she was given up for adoption to a samurai family named Otagaki. At age eight, she was sent to serve as a lady in waiting to the Matsudaira family at the Kameoka castle, where she studied calligraphy and literary and martial arts. She married twice surviving both husbands who died young. Her three children all died in infancy. At age 33, Rengetsu—along with her adoptive father, Furuhisa—renounced secular life, cut her hair, and took Buddhist vows. It was then that she took her Buddhist name, Rengetsu, meaning “lotus moon.”

A few years later, her father died leaving Rengetsu without finances. She left the temple, eventually making Chinese-style ceramic tea utensils as a means to support herself. Scholars speculate that Rengetsu’s unique calligraphy style in paintings, identified by crisp and precise strokes, stemmed from the technique she used when inscribing poetry on her ceramic wares. Her use of kana script (as opposed to Chinese characters) also made her poems easier to read. She was a beautiful woman, but in her forties she reportedly pulled out all her teeth to make herself less attractive to men who made uninvited advances. Her works were very popular, bringing collectors banging on her door. To escape this constant intrusion, Rengetsu moved often, earning the sobriquet “Yagoshi no Rengetsu” (Rengetsu who moved often). In 1865, Rengetsu again retired to a Buddhist temple and lived out the rest of her life immersed in the study of Buddhism, continuing to create painting, poetry, and pottery.

What is this calligraphy about?
This particular piece, entitled “Willow Tree” is painted on a tanzaku format, which is a long card or piece of paper intended for poems. In recent years, this tanzaku was mounted onto a hanging scroll format. The poem, written in the cursive kana syllabary, reads and translates as follows:

Kazoureba mitoshi no kuksahi sashiyanagi
Madoutsubakari narinikeru kamo—Rengetsu
As I count
only three years ago
Planted there a willow sprig.
Already its branches
Pound against a window.—Rengetsu

The poem wonders at nature’s energy, while at the same time expresses bitter nostalgia for the rapid passage of time.

Entry by Lisa Nguyen.

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