Ōtagaki Rengetsu is possibly the most famous female poet of 19th Century and also 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 of her five children. After that, she decided to shave her hair and take vows, adopting the name Rengetsu (Lotus Moon). 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.
This square painting by Rengetsu depicts a Japanese scenic landscape known as Ama-no-hashidate. Ama-no-hashidate, the 'Heavenly Bridge', is part of the Japanese
city Miyazu in the north of Kyōto prefecture. The 3,6 km long natural sandbank grown over by pine trees is one of Japan‘s 'Three Beautiful Landscapes' and since ages a so called
utamakura (lit. "poem pillow"), a famous location of tremendous beauty from which poets and artist draw their inspiration. In her poem, that Rengetsu arranged freely around the painting
in her fluid elegant handwriting, she describes a rainy scene where the sandbank is not visible at first, but suddenly appears within the mist like a bridge from heaven itself:
a moment of
recurring autumn rain
let it suddenly appear -
the bridge from heaven
Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia, 2007.
Tokyo National Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Harvard Art Museum, National Gallery of Australia, Miho Museum, LACMA Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and many more...