Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858)


Scroll painting “Ox and plum flowers”
Ink and color on paper
Kiitsu shihitsu (= painting at the beginning of the year)
Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858)
The 1st of January, Bunsei TSUCHINOTOUSHI (1829), end of the Edo period, 19th century
H.106cm (186cm), W.51cm (54cm)

Suzuki Kiitsu (1796-1858) was born in Omi Province (now Shiga Prefecture), the son of a dyer who later transferred his shop to Edo. He worked in the family business before becoming a pupil of Sakai Hōitsu (1761-1828) who was the founder of the Edo-Rinpa School. In 1826, along with his master, he prepared the Korin Hyakuzu (a collection of 100 Works by Korin) for publication thus learning the style of Sotatsu and Korin. His talent was well received and he essentially succeeded his master Sakai Hōitsu. His masterpiece painting, “Morning Glories Screen”, is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His works exhibit an urbane quality and an intellectual sense of decorative beauty, and they elicit admiration from a wide audience across borders and generations.

This scroll is painted in ink and color on a Japanese paper. The motif of the ox is often seen in Japanese Zen paintings (Zenga), such as “Ten Ox Herding Pictures” which is a series of ten paintings of oxen with short poems to illustrate the stages of a practitioner’s progression towards the purification of the mind and enlightenment. However, the ox was already a popular motif in Chinese painting prior to this series of paintings. Rural landscapes were a popular subject in China since ancient times, and the ox was often included to depict them. In the Tang dynasty, at a time when many painting masters emerged, the ox itself became a popular motif. Paintings of oxen were also popular in Japan. These animals were subjects for many famous painters in each period.

With its imposing body and vigorous eyes staring fixedly at a point, this ox is depicted carrying a bundle of wood, and rendered in a very realistic manner with daring and bold brush work. The plum flowers on the animal are on the other hand painted very finely, and this contrast has a dramatic effect and catches the eye. The plum flower is an auspicious symbol, often used to celebrate the New Year in Japan. It gives this painting its unique character and feeling. An ox with plum flowers like this painting recalls Tenjin, the god of learning in Japan. These two motifs are the symbols of Tenjin and are a very auspicious combination.

Kiitsu dated this painting to “Gantan”, New Year’s Day, with his signature. It is quite rare for a precise date to be mentioned on Japanese paintings. The ox was the animal for 1829 within the sexagenary cycle, and he obviously selected this subject to celebrate the New Year. He was 32 years old when he painted this work, and the fact that it is dated provides valuable information on the progress of his career as a master painter.