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Sōtatsu: Making Waves

Waves at Matsushima

These screens are among the most successful works by one of Japan’s most influential artists. Until the early twentieth century, they were held by the Zen temple Shōunji in Sakai, a port on the Inland Sea. The temple had been constructed by a major patron, the merchant Tani Shōan (1589–1644), who likely commissioned the screens to celebrate Shōunji’s opening in the late 1620s. Shōan’s fortune was largely based on a thriving sea trade that extended to China and Southeast Asia. The scene depicted probably represents no particular geographic location—Waves at Matsushima is an early twentieth-century appellation—but rather invokes Japanese iconography related to the miraculous gifts of the sea and a return to safe harbor, a symbolic statement of Shōan’s prosperity.

The screens greatly influenced painters throughout the Edo period (1615–1868) and even into the twentieth century (see the “Legacy of Waves” section). After he acquired the screens in 1906, Charles Lang Freer allowed them to be exhibited outside of his Detroit residence only once prior to their placement in the Freer Gallery of Art: in 1917, Waves at Matsushima was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition that commemorated the appointment of Viscount Ishii Kikujirō as Japan’s special envoy to the United States. It was displayed with Coxcombs, Maize, and Morning Glories (on view in “The I’nen Garden” section).

Waves at Matsushima
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40)
Japan, early 1600s
Pair of six-panel folding screens
Ink, color, gold, and silver on paper,
Freer Gallery of Art, Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1906.231-232

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