Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons

Sesshū Tōyo15th Century

Kyoto National Museum

Kyoto National Museum
Kyoto, Japan

Born in Bitchū province (now Okayama prefecture), the celebrated master ink painter Sesshū went to Kyoto and entered Shōkoku-ji Temple, where he studied Zen and works of painting. He then moved to Suō province (now Yamaguchi prefecture) and later joined a Japanese delegation to Ming-dynasty China, where he familiarized himself with the authentic ink paintings of China. After he returned to Japan, his artistic urge to create his own works grew ever stronger and he devoted himself to painting by traveling throughout the country with his brushes in hand.
Of the numerous screen paintings of birds and flowers attributed to Sesshū, the work here is the only one considered to be authentic. Both screens are respectively anchored by an enormous pine or plum tree, which are surrounded by seasonal flowers and birds. The scene, however, has a distinctive somber ambience with its haunting, almost reptile-looking pine and plum and idiosyncratic portrayal of the birds-and-flowers. It appears that Sesshū referenced the birds-and-flowers paintings of the Chinese Ming-dynasty master Lu Ji (b. ca. 1477). Painters of the Kano and Soga schools also learned after Ming works, however, few have directly expressed the stateliness and idiosyncrasies that Chinese paintings possess in such a way as this work has. In this respect, the style of this painting must have appeared novel in the eyes of Sesshū’s contemporaries, while simultaneously exerting the appeal of the painter, who traveled to China.
According to an oral tradition, Kanetaka, lord of the Masuda clan in Iwami province (now western Shimane prefecture) commissioned the screens as a congratulatory gift for his grandson Munekane (d. 1544) upon his inheritance as the head of the family. The veracity of this story, however, has not been proven.


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