In 1895, one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto, Ryoanji, sold the seventy-one paintings on sliding doors (fusuma) decorating the rooms of the abbot's quarters (hojo) to another Kyoto temple, the Higashi Honganji. During the tumultuous years following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, many Buddhist establishments were forced to sell temple treasures in order to survive. The Ryoanji panels were then sold to the Kyushu coal magnate, Ito Den'emon (d. 1941), probably through Mitsui Takaakira, who had close ties to Ito and who expressed interest in buying the paintings in his diary entry for November 3, 1895. Ito loaned the doors to Osaka Castle in 1933 on the occasion of an exhibition commemorating the 350th anniversary of the castle. A history of the doors was published in 1934 by the poet and art lover Tsuchida Kyoson.
The doors are now widely dispersed and most are missing. Only a few, including the six shown here, have been "rediscovered." In 1989 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased four panels from a private collector in Florida. They appear to have left Japan sometime after 1945. The Ryoanji provenance was literally uncovered during restoration at the museum when Takemitsu Oba, retired Starr Conservator of Asian art and now conservator, Asuka Studio, New York, found priceless documents inside the backing paper. This exciting discovery was published first in a New York Times article on December 20, 1990 ("Rare Japanese Screens Found at Met Museum") and then in a special issue of the museum's Bulletin in the summer of 1993.
The paintings are singular for a variety of reasons. They are in a style associated with Kano Takanobu, the second son of the great Momoyama painter Kano Eitoku, and are reliably dated from a period when few datable screen paintings survive. They were commissioned in 1606 by either Hosokawa Yusai (1534-1610) or his son Sansai (1564-1645), cultivated warriors central to the cultural scene in Kyoto. Because of the gold leaf ground and secular subject matter it was first thought that the panels came from a palace or castle. The Ryoanji provenance proves for the first time that the love of Chinese figure themes among Japanese warriors of the Momoyama period was carried over into religious settings in order to identify the patron with the time-honored Confucian and Daoist worthies. Here is concrete evidence of the shift from the retiring, meditative mood of the medieval world to one dominated by optimistic worldly desire. According to Philippe de Montebello, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum, the paintings not only have inestimable historical value, but their date, their bold design, and their rich colors on gold make them unique among surviving monumental temple figure paintings from this period.
The six door panels shown here are from the same group as the Metropolitan set and have recently been discovered in a private collection in Japan. The family had purchased the paintings directly from Ito Den'emon. The four narrow panels with "Chinese Immortals," a Daoist theme, were originally located at the center of the north (or rear) wall of the center room of the abbot's quarters looking out onto the famous fifteenth-century rock garden. This room was the core of the Zen monastery, the most important room of the building. The sliding doors in the Metropolitan Museum, which gained such widespread publicity both in this country and in Japan following their purchase in 1989, are from the west (left) wall of the same room. It is rare, of course, to have sliding panels in their original form: most have been converted in recent times to folding screens.
The original position of the two additional larger doors ("Chinese figures by a riverbank") is not known but they were probably from the southwest room (the patron's room, or dannanoma) which had paintings of the Four Elegant Accomplishments. Other paintings from this patron's room can be found on the reverse of the Metropolitan Museum's Chinese immortals doors, and on a set of four doors now in the Seattle Art Museum.
Previously sold in these Rooms, 23 March, 2000, lot 169