Tawaraya Sotatsu (ca. 1570-ca. 1643) is considered among the giants of Japanese painting. His work is typically Japanese both in its choice of subject matter and in its rather abstract, decorative design.
Little is known about the life and artistic career of Sotatsu. It is believed that he came from a family of well-to-do cloth merchants and that he grew up in the Kyoto area. The first fact about his life is that in 1602 he was employed to repair the famous 12th-century sutra scrolls which the Taira family had dedicated to the Itsukushima shrine. Even more significant is the fact that in 1630 the rank of hokkyo was bestowed upon him, indicating that by this time the artist must have achieved considerable fame and success. The few other references to Sotatsu suggest that he was part of a circle of influential Kyoto tea masters and esthetes and that he collaborated at various times with the famous calligrapher and lacquer artist Koetsu, who was related to him by marriage.
In contrast to many other artists of the early Edo period, who painted Chinese subjects in a Chinese style, Sotatsu worked in a very Japanese manner which was based on the Yamato-e and Tosa traditions of native painting. It is significant that one of his most famous works is a copy of the 13th-century Yamato-e scroll dealing with the life of the priest Saigyo and that before this he had been engaged in repairing another celebrated example of narrative scroll painting. From these works he derived his interest in subjects taken from Japanese history and literature such as the Tale of Genji and the Ise Monogatari. When choosing landscapes for his paintings, he also selected typically Japanese ones, such as the pine-covered islands of Matsushima, rather than the Chinese scenery represented by the artists of the Kano school. Not only is Sotatsu's subject matter typically Japanese, but his style is too, for he used bright colors and gold leaf applied in flat areas, thus achieving abstract, decorative patterns of great beauty and sensitivity.
Among the numerous works attributed to Sotatsu, the most remarkable is a pair of six-panel screens depicting episodes from the Tale of Genji (in the Seikado, a museum near Tokyo). Other fine paintings by Sotatsu are in the Daigoji, a temple near Kyoto, with which the artist seems to have had some sort of connection. One of the outstanding works there is a pair of two-panel screens depicting the classical Bugaku dance; another work consists of fan paintings mounted on a screen. All these works are typical for Sotatsu in their use of colorful, almost abstract decorative designs and in their dependence on the Yamato-e pictorial tradition. The finest example of this type of Sotatsu painting in America is a pair of folding screens depicting Matsushima (Freer Gallery, Washington). Another fine example is the deer scroll (Museum of Art, Seattle), which combines delicate pictorial designs executed by Sotatsu in gold and silver with calligraphy by his friend Koetsu.
Although Sotatsu's fame rests primarily on these screens and horizontal hand scrolls, he also painted numerous smaller pictures in the form of fans, album leaves, and hanging scrolls, some of the scrolls being in monochrome rather than color. Here again the question of authenticity is much debated, for Sotatsu had many followers and imitators who continued his type of painting after his death. The most famous of these artists were his son Sosetu and, somewhat later, Korin.
Further Reading on Tawaraya Sotatsu
The best and most complete book is Yuzo Yamane, ed., Sotatsu (Tokyo, 1962), which although written in Japanese, contains a summary and descriptions of plates in English. Briefer studies in English are Judith and Arthur Hart Burling, Sotatsu (1962), and Ichimatsu Tanaka, ed., Tawaraya Sotatsu, adapted into English by Elise Grilli (1956). For general background see Hugo Munsterberg, Arts of Japan (1957), and Peter C. Swann, Art of the World: Japan (1966).