Life of Hanabusa Itcho
If you ever visit the Kyoto National Museum, look
for paintings like this in Room 11 (Pre-Modern Paintings), on the
2nd Floor of the New Exhibition Hall.
I don't want to bore
you with too much difficult information, so let's talk about only
one painter today.
Have you ever heard of the Japanese artist Hanabusa Itcho? Hanabusa
means "Flower Bouquet" and Itcho means "One Butterfly."
Don't you think this is a beautiful name? He was active in the end
of the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the eighteenth
century. Because Itcho was a very well known painter, many of his
paintings still exist today. He is also well known because there
are so many copies (fakes) of his paintings. The fact that so many
contemporaries wanted to copy Itcho's work tells us how extraordinarily
popular he really was!
Here are two paintings by Itcho. What do you think of them?
Now, why do you think that Itcho was so popular? Naturally his paintings
show that he had atalent far beyond most artists, but this is not
the only reason for his appeal. The real reason was that he had
the kind of eventful and turbulent life that was almost unimaginable
for a painter at that time!
Itcho's father was a doctor named Taga Hakuan. He was the official
physician for Lord Ishikawa, the daimyo of the Kameyama Clan in
the Ise region of Japan. This was a relatively stable occupation
at the time and for this reason, young Itcho had an easy and comfortable
childhood. At age fifteen, however, his parents left Ise and took
Itcho with them to the capital of Edo (present day Tokyo). The reason
for this move is not clear.
We don't know many details about Itcho's life after he arrived in
Tokyo except for one thing: he became the disciple of Kano Yasunobu,
the official painter of the Shogunate government, and began to study
painting. However, for some reason, Yasunobu seems to have expelled
the young Itcho at the age of seventeen, after only two years of
After his expulsion, Itcho continued to paint in the official Kano
School style under the name Taga Choko (which means "Early
Lake"). At the same time he was active as a haikai(haiku) poet,
under the name Kyo'un ("Dawn Cloud"). Actually, at that
time he was more famous as a haiku poet than a painter. Through
his poetry writing, he became close friends with Kikaku, the top
disciple of the famous haiku poet Basho, and also got to know the
Master Basho himself! Through these connections, Itcho (then known
as Choko or Kyo'un) became friends with the wealthy merchants, powerful
government officers and daimyo (regional lords) in Edo. In time,
the painter/poet became quite a celebrity in the capital.
In 1693, however, Itcho's behavior must have gone one step too far,
for the artist was arrested and thrown into jail. Luckily, he was
released after two months. It is extremely rare for any painter
of the past who is still famous today to have gone to jail, but
that was not the end of Itcho's troubles. Five years later, he was
arrested again, but this time whatever he did must have been considered
inexcusable, for he was given one of the worst possible punishments:
exile from the capital to a remote island of Miyakejima in the Izu
At the time of his exile, Itcho was already forty-seven years old,
practically an old man in those days, when the average life expectancy
was much younger than it is today. Itcho must surely have gazed
across the waters at far-off Edo, thinking sadly that he would never
again set foot in the capital.
What do you think Itcho might have done to receive such a severe
punishment? Unfortunately, we have no idea what his crime really
was. Since the Edo period, there have been numerous theories, but
none of them have any conclusive evidence to support them.
In 1709, however, the Shogun Tsunayoshi died, and in honor of the
new government, Itcho was granted a pardon. At age fifty-eight,
the artist boarded a ship back to Edo.
While he was aboard ship in the middle of the ocean, the aging artist
found a single butterfly. With this experience as an inspiration,
he gave up his former name of Choko and took on the name Itcho!
The name Hanabusa is an adaptation of his mother's maiden name.
When Itcho returned to Edo, he found that his parents, his friend
Kikaku, and Basho had all passed away. This is how the curtain rose
on Itcho's final fifteen years of life in the now unfamiliar capital.
Despite all this, however, Itcho soon ascended again to fame and
fortune! Did you know that any artist had such a turbulent life
back in Edo-period Japan?
Text by Hiroyuki Kano, Department of Fine
Illustrations by Satoshi Ichida, Department of Public Relations
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives