Tesshu Tokusai was one of the most prominent figures in the Zen community of fourteenth-century Kyoto. Like others of his generation, he traveled to China when he was in his early twenties to further his studies of Zen, receiving instruction from some of the most respected Chan monks of the period. He also studied under the Yuan-dynasty monk-painter Xuechuang Puming (act. 1340-50), a master of orchid paintings. In 1342, he was appointed abbot of a monastery in Suchou. In 1343, he returned to Japan and became a disciple of the eminent Japanese Zen monk Muso Soseki (1276-1351). He served at Hodaiji in Awa, then, in 1362, became abbot of Manjuji in Kyoto. He retired in 1363 to the Ryukoin, a subtemple of Tenryuji in Saga, a suburb of Kyoto.
A noted bunjinso (monk-literatus), Tesshu specialized in paintings of orchids and of geese. For his diptych of Reeds and Geese in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, see the museum's website. He was also a skilled calligrapher in the cursive grass style, as well as a poet, as evidenced by his two-volume poetry anthology Enbushu (Temporal life). For his orchid painting that he inscribed with one of his own poems, see Miyeko Murase, Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), no. 44.
There are at least eight other scrolls known by Tesshu, similar to the one offered here, and most in hanging scroll format, inscribed in grass script or semi-cursive script with poems by Chinese poets. Some are in private collections, others in temples or museums, including Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto; Jishoji Temple, Kyoto; the Heinz Goetze Collection, Germany; Nakamura Munehide Collection, Zushi; and the Tokyo National Museum. For the scroll in the Tokyo National Museum, see Nihon koso bokuseki (Calligraphy by eminent Japanese monks), vol. 2 (Tokyo: Mainichi shinbunsha, 1970), 78. For the scroll in the Nakamura collection, see Tayama Honan, ed., Zenrin bokuseki (Zen calligraphy), vol. 2, (Kyoto: Shibunkaku, 1981), 230.