Ōtagaki Rengetsu is the most famous Japanese female poet of the 19th century and especially known for her excellent skills in calligraphy, poetry 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 lovely painting in a folding fan format depicts a sencha teapot like one of these, Rengetsu usually made by herself. The pot is painted fluently in a few thin lines, colored with a very light, soft pink paint and highlighted with two broader, light grey brushstrokes on the pot's shoulder and lid to give the vessel a more three-dimensional impression. On the left side of the painting, Rengetsu added one of her poem that accompanies perfectly the painted pot:
it is loved by all,
the water from the Uji river,
infused by the scent of
In her poem, Rengetsu is playing with several synesthetic impressions. First, she gives the viewer the idea that the brewed tea in the pot is made with water that was extra brought from the Uji river in Kyōto, which is a famous scenic spot, well-known also from the Tale of Genji. Then she additionally connects that impression with the scent of mountain roses (Jap. yamabuki), growing in the mountains close to the river and enjoyed by old and young in spring when their blossoms color the nature in bright yellow. Finally, she links the written word with the image by using the first syllable of the poem 'く' (ku) with its wavy form in its pictorial qualities, just like a stream of steam that rises from the teapot's spout and spreading its fragrant scent – whether it is that one of the tea or that one of blossoming mountain roses.
The painting was once originally painted on a folding fan and later mounted as hanging scroll by an admiring Japanese collector. The box bears an inscription and certification by one of Meiji period's leading artists, Mochizuki Gyokusen (1834-1913).
Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, National Gallery of Australia, 2007, p.58.
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