Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Flowers and Birds of the Twelve Months

What is this painting about?

These two panels represent the eleventh and twelfth months from a pair of six-fold screens depicting flowers, birds, and poems of the twelve months by Yamamoto Soken. Paintings that combine imagery and poetic texts are common in East Asian art, but this work contains a poetic structure unique to Japan, the waka, or 36-syllable poem. In it the Japanese poet subtly expresses emotions through metaphors of nature.

The poems on this screen were not written by the painter, but were originally composed by Fujiwara Teika (1167–1241), the foremost poet of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Teika, a member of the nobility, wrote the “Flowers of Birds of the Twelve Months” in 1214. Some 500 years later, they experienced a renaissance of interest among the disenfranchised courtiers as well as the newly rich merchant class who sought ownership of cultural sophistication. Different styles of writing are represented suggesting it was several calligraphers, perhaps even members of a poetry club who contributed to this work. Only Konoe Iehiro (1667–1736) has been identified as one of the calligraphers.

Who was the artist?

Soken, the painter, was trained in both the Tosa and Kano schools of painting, which he blended in his work. For example, energetic Kano brushstrokes are used in the tree branches, whereas delicate Tosa coloring renders the distant hills and misty clouds. He was the teacher of the important Rinpa artist Ogata Korin.

What is the poetry about?

As in most Japanese screens, the panels are read from right to left. The first panel to the far right of the right screen represents the first month, the far left panel on the left screen represents the twelfth. In this work, Soken has closely adhered to the content of the poems. The birds, flowers, plants and seasonal references all converge to celebrate the changing aspect of nature. The poems may serve as a starting point for seeing what is depicted in the paintings.


  1. Write a poem. These poems may be used for a lesson in poetry, where students read them and write their own poems celebrating nature, the changing seasons, and local festivities using references familiar to them, such as fog, the ocean, California poppies, eucalyptus trees, Chinatown New Year’s parade, Japan Town Cherry Blossom festival, etc.
  2. Interpret a poem. Before showing the paintings, hand out the poems for students to read. Ask them to pick one and read it carefully. Then ask them to draw a picture of what the poemdescribes. Students then pass their pictures around so others can guess which poem their neighbor’s picture represents. Then show the Soken painting and discuss it. Did Soken represent everything in the poems? Did he add new ideas in the pictures?