Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875)

Aubergine Poem and Painting

Inv. Nr. #19.026
Date Early Meiji period, 1869
Material Ink on silver decorated paper fan
Dimensions H 109 x W 45 cm (33 x 38)

Comes with fitted wooden box, inscribed and sealed by Issui

 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.


The work presented here is a fan painting mounted as hanging scroll with an image of two aubergines, which she created at the age of 78. It falls into the last decade of her life, which she has spent at the tearoom of Jinkō-in temple in Kyōto. Despite her tragic life, the work exemplifies the subtle humor Rengetsu was able to maintain for herself. In her poem she links the image of two ripe aubergines with the Buddhist conception of a fulfilled and happy life: “To rise in the world and achieve what one desires, therefore, aubergines are indeed a fortunate example” (Yo no naka ni/ mi no nari idete/ omou koto/ nasu ha medetaki/ tameshi narikeri ).


The painting comes with a fitted wooden storage box, which is inscribed with a certificate by monk Issui (1863-1945), former abbot of Jinkō-in temple: "Early winter in 1942 [Shōwa 17], on a fortunate morning at Jinkō [temple] at northern ward of Kyōto, surrounded by mountains, signed by 80 years old Issui."



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.