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Ike Taiga

Japanese, 1723 - 1776

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To his contemporaries Ike Taiga was an eccentric marvel, an artist who lived according to the promptings of his own inner voice, indifferent to the worldly preoccupations of those around him. During a prodigious career that spanned four decades, Taiga produced over 1,000 calligraphies and paintings, many large-scale screens and fusuma (sliding doors). His creative output demonstrates an impressive range of styles, techniques, composition, and subject matter, and his inventiveness and endless experimentation fueled the emergence of the Nanga school--painters who, like their Chinese predecessors, were individualistic artists who used distinctive, calligraphic brushwork and illustrated traditional Chinese subjects in new ways. He ultimately laid the groundwork for multiple paths that Japanese artists would follow in succeeding generations.

Early Works

Born into a lower middle-class family in Kyoto on the fourth day of the Fifth month of 1723, Taiga was a child prodigy, producing his first calligraphy by the age of three, about the time his father died. At five, he was learning to memorize and recite the Confucian texts that were the foundation of an education in eighteenth-century Japan. By age six he began his formal education in calligraphy and Chinese classics.

Although he received no formal artistic training that we know of, Taiga studied painting from imported Chinese printed books made available to him by a mentor. When he was fourteen or fifteen, he opened a fan shop in Kyoto to support himself and his widowed mother. His shop became prominently mentioned in contemporary guidebooks of Kyoto as one of the "must-see" places to visit.

During this period Taiga began experimenting with the Chinese technique of finger painting, using his fingernails, fingertips, and the palms of his hands. In 1748 he undertook his first extended trip to Edo (modern Tokyo) and eastern Japan, visiting famous scenic spots en route and meeting future patrons. Among the new supporters he found was an employee of a daimyo (provincial ruler) in Kanazawa who commissioned the lyrical handscroll Wondrous Scenery of Mutsu, in which Taiga depicted some of his travels. He also received his first commissions for large-scale sliding doors and screens at this time.

Chinese Themes

In the early 1750s Ike Taiga met and married Tokuyama Gyokuran (1727-1784), a young woman who came from a line of well-known poets. She had studied painting with Yanagisawa Kien, a longtime friend and supporter of Taiga's, and after their marriage, she would continue her painting studies with Taiga as well.

Taiga and Gyokuran worked in many formats, producing fans, hanging scrolls, and handscrolls as well as large-scale sliding doors and screens. Some of their works depict traditional Chinese themes, such as the literati-scholar living an ideal life of reclusion in the countryside and sharing his poems and wine with a few like-minded friends. In the pair of six-fold screens entitled Flowering Plum Trees in Mist, Taiga incorporates plum blossoms--another favorite theme from China--in rich tones of black and gray ink. The mist is applied in a light gold wash, a traditional Japanese painting technique. Both Taiga and Gyokuran depicted bamboo in all its stages of growth and in different seasons.


Ike Taiga's earliest extant works are calligraphies, and he never abandoned this art form. He studied the classical Chinese poets and composed his own verses as well. An avid student of ancient Chinese script styles, Taiga is said to have kept his account books in the so-called seal script, which made them illegible to anyone else (much as Leonardo da Vinci wrote backwards in his notebooks).

In the calligraphies on his scrolls and screens, Taiga used verses by renowned Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty (618-907) as well as his own poems. His verses address themes such as famous Chinese sites from literature and history, and friendship among the literati. The poems frequently allude to older Chinese paintings or lines of Chinese classical poetry, which would have been recognized by knowledgeable viewers in Taiga's day and thus added a layer of meaning and enjoyment. The brushstrokes in Taiga's calligraphy are characterized by an improvisational freedom, an openness and animation that appeal to contemporary tastes.

Japanese Themes

Taiga and Gyokuran lived and worked in Kyoto, near the Gion Shrine, the site of an annual festival that is still held today. The festivals and popular Buddhism of eighteenth-century Japan were subjects that these artists depicted in their works, often with humor, as seen in the Uzumasa Festival scroll by Taiga, or in his rendering of Zen Buddhist figures such as Beidu (whose name means "crossing in a cup"). Gyokuran and Taiga also studied and transcribed verse onto poem cards and fans. Taiga's large-scale calligraphy of a classical verse by the famed ninth-century poet Ono no Komachi is one of the most impressive of these transcriptions. Traditional Japanese literature such as the Tale of Genji provided source material for both artists as well.

Chinese Landscapes

During the eighteenth century, when Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran were active, there were many groups of artists working in Japan, painting in established styles. Taiga sought to experiment with new modes, particularly those associated with the Chinese literati.

The direct sources for Taiga's landscape brush styles were imported Chinese printed painting manuals that provided models of classical Chinese themes. Thus, the subjects of Taiga's and Gyokuran's landscapes were often famous places in China, such as West Lake, Red Cliff, and the road to Shu. Both artists used new brush techniques, such as the long, wiry lines called hemp-fiber strokes, or stippled dot-like strokes in rich colors that seem precursors to the European Impressionist style.

One distinctive feature of Taiga's Chinese landscapes is the use of poetic inscriptions and four-character titles that he brushed directly onto the paintings. Chinese landscapes were traditionally depicted on long, vertical hanging scrolls, but Taiga and Gyokuran successfully transferred them to fans, handscrolls, albums, screens, and sliding doors.

Late Works

Ike Taiga's late works reflect the lessons learned during his fifty-year career. His lifelong love of travel and mountain climbing inspired him to experiment with "true view" paintings of scenic places in Japan, such as Mount Fuji and Kojima Bay. The artist also combined these naturalistic views with the Chinese literati style and themes, creating a totally new synthesis in Japanese art.

Two albums among Taiga's late works attest to his supreme mastery of the brush. For Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang, he painted a series of brilliant abstractions of this traditional Chinese theme in tones of black and gray ink. The other album, entitled Ten Conveniences, shows Taiga's skill as a colorist who used complex brushstrokes to create vignettes of quiet harmony that reveal the joys of country living. This album is designated as a National Treasure in Japan and once belonged to the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kawabata Yasunari.

Ike Taiga died in 1776.

Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran: Japanese Masters of the Brush, 2007

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