Ōtagaki Rengetsu is probably the most famous female artist of the 19th century in Japan, especially known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She was born the illegitimate
daughter of a samurai from the Tōdō family. Soon after her birth, she was adopted by Ōtagaki Mitsuhasa, who worked at Chion'in, an important temple of the Jōdo (Pure Land) school in Kyōto. In
1798, after losing her mother and brother, she was sent to serve as a lady-in-waiting at Kameoka Castle in Tanba, where she was taught classical poetry, calligraphy, and martial arts.
At only 33 years of age, she had already experienced some fateful years in her life, losing two husbands and all five of her children. She then decided to shave her hair and take Buddhist vows, taking the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). During this time, she lived with her stepfather near Chion'in Temple. After his death in 1832, Rengetsu began making her extraordinary pottery, which she usually inscribed with her own waka (31-syllable classical poetry) and sold to support herself. With her unique combination of pottery, calligraphy, and poetry, Rengetsu gained recognition far beyond the borders of Kyōto during her lifetime.
In this work, Rengetsu painted a small butterfly and wrote an elegant yet meaningful poem next to it:
In a field of flowers and dew
Now dozing away...
In whose dream
Is this butterfly?
Her poem and the butterfly motif allude to the existential thought of the Chinese Daoist sage Zhuangzi, who is said to have asked the question: "Am I a man who only dreamed he was a butterfly, or
a butterfly who now dreams he is a man?" In Japan, too, the butterfly motif is a symbol of beauty and the transience of life, so it seems natural that Rengetsu would prefer to paint it,
especially in the last decade of her life.
There are several known versions of this painting. One from a private collection in Zurich was published in the catalog "Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu" (National Gallery of Australia) on page 79. This painting was dated to the 1840s - 50s. A later version of a butterfly painting is owned by the LA County Museum of Art. The LA version was made in 1869 - according to the age given under Rengetsu's signature.
– Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia (2007), p. 79.
– Goodall, Hollis; Singer, Robert T.: Art of Asia Acquired by North American Museums, 2014-2015, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Archives of Asian Art 66, no.2 (2016), p. 284.
– Singer, Robert T.; Masatomo, Kawai (ed.): The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art (2019).
Tokyo National Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Harvard Art Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Miho Museum, LACMA Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and many more...