Ōtagaki Rengetsu is possibly the most famous female artist of the 19th Century in Japan, especially known for her excellent skills in calligraphy and pottery. She was born as 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 Jōdo (Pure Land) school temple in Kyōto. In 1798, having lost 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.
With only 33 years, she already went through some fateful years of her life with the loss of two husbands and all her five children. After that, she decided to shave her hair and take Buddhist vows, adopting the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). In that time, she lived together with her stepfather near Chion’in temple. After his death in 1832, Rengetsu began to make 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 already gained large recognition during her lifetime far beyond the borders of Kyōto.
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 motif of a butterfly are alluding to the existential thinking of the Chinese Daoist sage Zhuangzi, who is said to raise the question: "Am I a man who just dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he is a man?" Also in Japan, the motif of a butterfly is a symbol for beauty and the impermanence of life, it seems just natural that Rengetsu favored to paint it, especially in her last decade of life.
There are several known versions of this painting. One from a private collection in Zurich has been published in the catalog "Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu" by the National Gallery of Australia on page 79. That painting was dated to 1840s - 50s. A later version of a butterfly painting is in possession of the LA County Museum of Art. The LA version was made in year 1869 – according to the given age 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).
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