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Kanô Tsunenobu (1636-1713)
The Seven Sages in a Bamboo Grove
Black ink on paper

The theme "Seven Sages in the Bamboo Grove" has a long history in both Chinese and Japanese painting. Part fact and part legend, the seven sages were Taoists supposedly endowed with supernatural powers. They rejected the authority of Confucian teaching and government, opting instead for a reclusive lifestyle. They were said to gather in a bamboo grove from time to time to enjoy one anothers' literary talents, irreverence, and eccentricities. This behavior contested the long-held Confucian ideal of virtue earned through public service. It proposed, instead, that self-perfection came through the cultivation of individuality. While those marginalized from the affairs of government often politicized the seven sages theme, those whose reclusive sensibilities were motivated by religious practice or aesthetic pursuits also ascribed to it. Zen monasteries and their patrons, for example, often commissioned seven sages paintings. This theme was equally popular among members of the governing samurai class who, like Chinese literati before them, often gathered in their villas and teahouses to cultivate their personal interests in poetry, music, painting, and the tea ceremony.

Tsunenobu deploys the full repertoire of Kanô school sensibilities in this rendition of the seven sages theme. Large rock masses heavily weight the outside corners of the two screens. The higher concentration and careful placement of bamboo in these sections of the screens emphasizes this point. To the center of the screens, the landscape elements thin out and fade back into the mist. Kanô painters often used this compositional arrangement to frame the scene and define the ground on which they set the figures.

Facility with the brush and a powerful sense of line were hallmarks of the Kanô tradition. Tsunenobu's treatment of the robes worn by the sages makes this evident. The contour lines along the hems of the garments are dynamic and aggressive to the point where they contradict the sense of space created by the landscape elements.

Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The Gregg Family Trust; 95.10.1-.2

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Copyright (c) 2000, Mayumi Ishida, All Rights Reserved Last Updated: April 11, 2000