Setsugai (Japanese, Active late 15th - early 16th century)
Blossoming Plum, Muromachi period, late 15th - early 16th century
Hanging scroll, ink and wash on paper
56 1/2 x 15 15/16 in. (143.5 x 40.5 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1982
This superb ink painting of plum blossoms by Setsugai is one of few known paintings by this mysterious master. The plum blossom motif was popular in part because it allowed artists to demonstrate virtuoso brush technique.
This dramatic image of a flowering branch sweeping upwards against the sky belongs to the genre of ink plum blossom (momei) painting. This genre was first established in China during the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), where it was associated primarily with literati and Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk painters. It was probably through the latter artists that the style was transmitted to Japan, perhaps in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. This painting is stylistically similar to works by two famous Chinese ink plum blossom painters, Wang Mian (d. 1359) and Chen Lu (active ca. 1436-1449), and thus should probably be dated to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.1
Paintings of blossoming plum branches offered artists excellent opportunities to demonstrate the calligraphic flair of their brushwork. Moreover, since plum blossoms had multiple connotations in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the paintings were also highly suitable as symbolic expressions. As one of the earliest spring-flowering trees, plum branches could symbolize rejuvenation and vitality. Because the tree was hardy and often long lived, its branches also signified endurance and perseverance. In other contexts, the delicate white blossoms were often associated with purity and feminine gracefulness. With so many possible meanings, plum blossom paintings could be displayed on many occasions, a versatility that was no doubt part of the genre's long-lasting appeal.
Virtually nothing is known about Setsugai. He is assumed to have been a monk. His name, Setsugai, is a Chinese-style sobriquet, for which reason he is thought perhaps to have been originally of Chinese or Korean extraction. Beyond this scant speculation, however, his identity and life remain a mystery.
Roberts, Laurance P. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists. New York, 1976, pp. 143-44.
Collection Mr. K. Yano, Sakura City, Japan (until 1979)
With Yamanaka and Co., Ltd., Kyôto, Japan, from whom purchased in 1982
This hanging scroll was executed in ink and wash on paper. In very good condition, there is only minor damage due to age. There are no inscriptions or signatures, but there are three seals, including one reading "Setsugai" and two unidentified.
1.The history of plum blossom painting in China is detailed in Maggie Bickford, Bones of Jade, Soul of Ice: The Flowering Plum in Chinese Art (exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1985). Images in this catalogue that compare well with Oberlin's Setsugai include paintings by Wang Mian (p. 81, fig. 31), Chen Lu (p. 88, fig. 37), and Liu Shiru (p. 103, fig. 45).