The Japanese painter and Zen priest Toyo Sesshu (1420-1506) is generally regarded as Japan's greatest painter. His Zen-inspired paintings are credited with establishing a truly Japanese style of ink painting which had a great influence on all later Japanese painting.
The Muromachi, or Ashikaga, period during which Sesshu lived was profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism, which had been introduced from China during the Kamakura period. Under its impact the Chinese-style ink paintings of the great masters of the Southern Sung period, especially the landscape painters Ma Yüan and Hsia Kuei and the Ch'an painters Mu Ch'i and Yu-chien, served as models for the Japanese painters. Not only did these artists derive their style from China, but the landscape they represented was also that of South China in spite of the fact that many of them had never been there.
Sesshu was born in Bitchu Province in western Honshu. As a youth, he became a Buddhist novice at the Shokoku-ji, a well-known Zen temple in Kyoto which was not only a famous Buddhist sanctuary but a celebrated cultural center as well. At the monastery young Sesshu came under the influence of the famous painter Shubun, who was a fellow monk, and the Zen master Shunrin Suto, who became his spiritual adviser.
Little is known about Sesshu's early artistic work prior to his journey to China (1467-1469), during which he visited Buddhist monasteries and traveled as far as Peking. Although the artist was well received and also much impressed by the grandiose landscape, he was disappointed with the state of painting in Ming China, which to his way of thinking compared unfavorably to the painting of the Sung period some 2 centuries earlier.
Returning to Japan in 1469, Sesshu moved from place to place in northern Kyushu to avoid the civil war which was raging in Kyoto and finally settled in Oita, where he enjoyed the patronage of the Otomo family. His friend, the monk Bofu Ryushin, in commenting upon Sesshu's position at this time, reported that everyone from the nobility to the common people of Oita admired his painting and asked for examples of his work. Between 1481 and 1484 the artist made a long journey through Japan, visiting many parts of the country and making numerous sketches of the landscape.
After Sesshu returned to western Japan, he settled at Yamaguchi in Suho Province, where he set up the Tenkaitoga-ro studio and enjoyed the patronage of the Mori family. He spent the remainder of his life at Yamaguchi, enjoying ever-growing fame as Japan's leading artist.
Of all the various subjects treated by Sesshu, landscapes form by far the largest and most important category. The earliest of these is a set of hanging scrolls depicting the four seasons (National Museum, Tokyo). Painted either in China or shortly after his return, they reflect the rather dry and academic style of the Chinese Che school of the time. His mature style is best seen in a pair of landscape scrolls depicting fall and winter, which originally belonged to the Manju-in in Kyoto (now in the National Museum, Tokyo). Painted in ink on paper in a vigorous and expressive manner, they show the artist at his very best. The style and the subject are derived from Chinese models, but Sesshu's paintings show far greater contrasts between solid blacks and lighter tones, more emphasis on heavy lines, and a flatter space than would be found in Chinese Sung painting.
While these pictures are in the form of hanging scrolls, called kakemono, other landscapes by Sesshu are in the form of horizontal hand scrolls known as makimono. The most famous of these, and perhaps Sesshu's most outstanding work, is the long scroll landscape (collection of the Mori family, Yamaguchi). Measuring more than 50 feet in length and painted in 1486, when the artist was at the peak of his power, it represents suiboku ink painting at its best, combining magnificent brushwork with a profound interpretation of the moods and aspects of nature. Starting with a spring landscape, it ends with winter scenes depicting mountains, gnarled pines, picturesque rocks, tiny figures, fishing boats, village huts, and town houses.
Two other celebrated Sesshu landscapes are the haboku sansui scroll (National Museum, Tokyo) of 1495 and the Ama-no-hashidate, or Bridge of Heaven scroll (National Museum, Kyoto), a work from the very end of Sesshu's life, about 1502 to 1506. The haboku sansui is painted in the so-called spilled-ink style, a free and very spontaneous manner derived from the Zen tradition. The Ama-no-hashidate, which is a kind of topographical painting of a celebrated beauty spot located on the Japanese sea coast, is executed in a very meticulous style. Several other landscapes can with more or less certainty be attributed to Sesshu, but none of them is equal in quality to these masterpieces. Among the landscapes in American collections which are attributed to Sesshu, the spilled-ink-style picture in the Cleveland Museum is the most authentic as well as the finest esthetically.
Although Sesshu remained a Buddhist monk all his life and his landscape painting was religious in inspiration, several of his other works are Zen paintings in a more specific sense. Among these is a large scroll painted in 1496 (collection of the Sainen-ji, Aichi prefecture). It depicts Huiko cutting off his arm to demonstrate his will power to the founder of Zen, Bodhidarma, or Daruma, as he is called in Japan. Both the bold, inspired brushwork of the picture and the choice of the subject matter are typical of Zen Buddhist thought. The portrait of Daruma, with bushy eyebrows and a fierce expression, reveals his spiritual power in a masterful way.
Bird and Flower Paintings
The third main category of Sesshu's work consists of decorative screen paintings depicting birds and flowers as well as monkeys and all sorts of trees and plants. This type of painting, which was particularly popular in Ming China, is very different from Sesshu's other work owing to its greater attention to realistic detail and emphasis on decorative design rather than religious feeling. The format too tends to differ from most of his other works, for these paintings tend to be folding screens instead of scroll paintings. Among the screens of this type, the finest is a pair showing birds and flowers rendered in a very decorative and detailed manner (Kosaka Collection, Tokyo).
The best such painting in America is the monkey screen (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which, although signed and dated 1491, is no longer believed to be by Sesshu. However, since he had many followers working in his style, the question of which works are actually by the master and which are by his workshop or his followers is very difficult to determine.
Further Reading on Toya Sesshu
The most complete work on Sesshu in English is still Jon Carter Covell, Under the Seal of Sesshu (1941). A more recent work is Tanio Nakamura, Sesshu Toyo, 1420-1506, with an English text by Elise Grilli (1957). There is a brief introduction to Sesshu's life and work in the Tokyo National Museum's edition of The Masterpieces of Sesshu (1956).