Museum Dictionary

The Life of Hanabusa Itcho

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?

  • Hanabusa Itcho,
    Magpie on a Plum Branch with Moon
    Edo period
    Hanging scroll, ink on paper,
    h:109.9 cm x w:30.1 cm
    (Private collection)
  • Hanabusa Itcho,
    Lotus and Heron
    Edo period
    Hanging scroll, ink on paper,
    h:82.3 cm x w:26.3 cm
    (Private collection)

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 his apprenticeship!

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 Islands.

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 Arts
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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