Nagasawa Rosetsu and The Tiger

Tiger (1786) by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799), detail from a set of six sliding door panels, ink on paper, Muryo-ji, Kushimoto. Important Cultural Property

For eight weeks, Japan’s most famous tiger is on show in Zurich in an exhibition entitled Ferocious Brush. Nagasawa Rosetsu painted the tiger image in the 18th century and the legend states that Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799) painted this monumental tiger in a single night in the year 1786, together with its counterpart, a dragon, on the sliding door panels (fusuma) of the Zen temple Muryo ji in Wakayama prefecture, Kansai region on Honshu. Now the entire temple’s painted walls and a number of other works by Rosetsu are on show – for the first time outside Japan.

Highly Individualistic Work

Renowned as one of the most eccentric and imaginative artists in early modern Japan, Nagasawa Rosetsu produced visually exciting, classification-defying works during his brief career. His highly dynamic and individualistic paintings were created with vigorous brushstrokes and sometimes even with his fingers in a method called shitoga (using fingers and hands rather than brushes). However, Rosetsu also created more delicate compositions that were painted with fine brushes in a rich colour palette that are replete with energy, wit, which still retain huge appeal for a modern audience.

Rosetsu, who came from a low-ranking samurai family, gained his reputation among art circles in the imperial capital Kyoto and its neighbouring regions with his untamed personality and his unusual talent. He is often seen as the least well-known of the three Edo period (1603-1868) eccentric painters (kijin), the others being Soga Shohaku and Ito Jakuchu. Perhaps this is because his achievements have failed to eclipse the popularity of the most important works of his teacher, Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795).

A Disciple of Maruyama Okyo

However, as a student, he was to become known as one of the best disciples of Maruyama Okyo. Rosetsu mastered the superlative realism of his teacher that combined the indefinite spatial articulations of traditional Japanese painting and went on to develop his own unique style. Okyo’s new school of painting was in direct contrast to the established schools of the time: the Kano, Rimpa, and Tosa styles that originated in the Muromachi, Momoyama and early Edo periods.

The new painting styles that developed can be loosely classified into two categories: the individualist or eccentric style and the bunjin-ga, literati painting style. These individualist painters were influenced by non-traditional sources such as Western painting perspectives and scientific studies of nature and who frequently portrayed unexpected themes, or techniques, to create unique works reflecting their own unconventional personalities.

The Maruyama school believed in and taught direct observation of nature and encouraged a sense of realism in painting. A fusion of Western naturalism and the Eastern decorative style of the Kano School. The first master, Maruyama Okyo, who also founded the school, was dedicated to these principles and created pictures sketched from life rather than copying past masterpieces (which the Kano School encouraged – it was the ‘establishment’ school and considered the most famous and influential school of Japanese painting).

The Maruyama artists’ works were filled with what they saw around them – birds, fish, monkeys, flowers, and plants in every stage of growth and season; they also paid attention to the weather, be it the moodiness of rain, or the atmosphere of a cloudless moonlight night. However, Rosetsu, took a strikingly different path to subject matter than the other pupils of Okyo and turned away from his master’s more disciplined and studied approach to composition and started to develop his own individual, freer style.

Rosetsu Left Tokyo in 1786

It seems by 1781 whilst continuing to work under the auspices of Okyo’s school, he established his own studio and managed to cultivate his own benefactors, whilst continuing to work under Okyo. From 1786, when Rosetsu left Kyoto to produce screen paintings for Buddhist temples, this spontaneity and freer expression can be seen in his works, in direct contrast to Okyo’s careful pseudo-realism. By the time he returned to Kyoto, the elements of an eccentric style had become well established in his own painting style.

At this point in his career, most of his important commissions came from Zen temples. Gregg Baker, the London dealer, comments on this period in Rosetsu’s life: On Okyo’s recommendation Rosetsu left for southern Kii Province (now Wakayama Prefecture) in 1786 and stayed for a year at the Muryo-ji, Sodo-ji and Joju-ji temples of the Zen Buddhist sect.

Created over 140 Wall and Screen Paintings

Rosetsu created over 140 wall and screen paintings during this short period of time, most of which have been designated Important Cultural Properties. He was in his mid-thirties when he executed these works yet they survive in these temples to this day, they are, without exception, very ambitious paintings. Rosetsu was an extraordinarily versatile artist, at times close to the suiboku (literally water and ink) style of the Muromachi school of painting, and at others borrowing themes from ukiyo-e masters and painting famous Bijin (beauties).

Nagasawa Rosetsu often combined the bold composition of the Rimpa School with the humour of Zenga, frequently using a flat brush, or holding the brush in a slanting position, using different tones of ink in the same broad stroke. Occasionally the artist worked in a sort of Western technique called doro-e, a thick paint mixed with Chinese white, byobu (screens) commonly appear in pairs, each screen consisting of two or more, folding screens.

Fusuma and Byobu – Japanese Screens

The exhibition has a diverse range of Rosetsu’s works from scrolls depicting birds and flowers in brilliant polychrome pigments to large-scale sliding doors (fusuma) made for temples, as well as byobu, with works depicting fantastic landscapes, bizarre figures, and whimsical animals. With his unconventional compositions and powerful brushwork Rosetsu always offers a fresh take on traditional subject matter. The works were chosen in consultation with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Government of Japan (Bunkacho) to expressly reveal the breadth of his subject matter, his relationship to Zen Buddhism, contacts with patrons outside Kyoto, and his choice of portraying extraordinarily bold images.

Selection of 60 of Nagasawa Rosetsu’s Most Important Works on Show

On show are a selection of 60 of his most important paintings, beginning with the earliest works in the realist style of his teacher Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), and ending with the haunting and occasionally bizarre final masterpieces of his career. Screen paintings, scrolls, and albums depicting Zen eccentrics, children at play, beauties, landscapes, and as well as animals and birds take visitors on a journey through Rosetsu’s own travels and into his fantastic imagination that produced works that are compellingly realistic and sometimes surprisingly abstract. The Rietberg exhibition looks at  these many mysteries created by Rosetsu during his enigmatic career – and his untimely death in Osaka under suspicious circumstances.

Works from Muryo-ji Temple

The highlight of the exhibition is the collection of 48 screens and hanging scrolls from Muryo-ji temple in Kushimoto. They are displayed using a floorplan that recreates the original layout of the ancient Zen temple in the southern part of Japan’s main island that holds the largest and most important collection of Rosetsu’s paintings, which were mainly created in 1786. The installation of these works, presented as they would have originally been seen, gives  an unprecedented opportunity to view and examine the paintings in a single venue outside their home in Kushimoto and it is the first such installation of architecturally specific paintings of this type in an exhibition outside Japan.

Important Cultural Properties

Approximately one-third of the works are registered as Important Cultural Properties or Important Art Objects. Complementing these masterpieces from Japan are paintings from other museums, temples, and private collections in Japan, Europe, and the United States that help trace the phases of Rosetsu’s life as he pursued his livelihood in Kyoto and the surrounding provinces.

The exhibition closes with a dramatic display of abstract landscapes, ghosts, and perhaps Nagasawa Rosetsu’s  most astonishing work of all – a depiction of 500 Disciples of the Buddha on a surface of only one square inch. An astonishing painting for an astonishing life.

The exhibition with Rosetsu’s tiger paintings runs from 6 September to 4 November, Rietberg Museum, Zurich,

A catalogue in German and English presents the most recent scholarship on the artist, a new standard work on Nagasawa Rosetsu.

The exhibition is jointly curated by Dr Khanh Trinh, Curator of Japanese art, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, and Dr Matthew McKelway, Takeo and Itsuko Atsumi Professor of Japanese Art History; director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Japanese Art, Columbia University, New York

Kushimoto Okyo Rosetsu Art Museum, is in the grounds of Muryo-ji temple, southern Wakayama,

Follow this link to read more about Japanese temple paintings and the roots of Zen paintings in Japan.