Tawaraya Sotatsu

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The right screen of Sôtatsu's "Matsushima Screens," today in the collection of the Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Active: c. 1600-1640
  • Japanese: 俵屋宗達 (Tawaraya Soutatsu)

Tawaraya Sôtatsu was a machi-eshi painter active in Kyoto in the early decades of the 17th century. Along with Hon'ami Kôetsu, with whom he worked closely, he is considered one of the forerunners of the Rinpa style, which was founded by Ogata Kôrin roughly a century later explicitly imitating and reviving the style of Kôetsu and Sôtatsu.

Relatively little is known about Sôtatsu's biography. His family name may have been Kitagawa or Nonomura; the years of his birth and death are unknown. Some sources indicate he may have been of some relation to Hon'ami Kôetsu through marriage, but this too is unclear.[1]

It is known that Sôtatsu was a quite prominent figure within Kyoto commoner society, and the proprietor of a shop called the Tawaraya, which specialized in paintings, fans, dolls, and other small objects for a largely chônin (commoner/townspeople) market, though he had samurai and kuge customers as well. Some of these aristocratic customers were regulars, with whom Sôtatsu developed a close connection; on occasion, his works were given by these aristocratic patrons to other nobles, or even to the emperor or empress themselves. Through recommendations from these aristocratic patrons, he began to receive commissions from the court itself. The painting of a series of doors and panels for the Yôgen-in in 1621 was perhaps the first of these commissions; of those which survive, the gilded wall panels are decorated chiefly with pine tree motifs, while the doors feature pictures of lions and elephants. Shortly afterwards, he was granted the honorary title of hokkyô by Emperor Go-Mizunoo.

Sôtatsu may have studied painting under the court painter Kaihô Yûshô. The earliest known mention of Sôtatsu in the historical record relates that in 1602, he engaged in the repair of the Heike nôkyô, a copy of the Lotus Sutra belonging to the Taira clan and dating back to 1164. This work chiefly involved repainting elements on the endpapers of the scrolls, in gold paint, and adding some new paintings of his own, such as a section depicting deer, in silver and gold paint, at the head of one of the scrolls.[1]

Kôetsu was granted a plot of land in Takagamine in 1615 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Sôtatsu joined him in establishing there, in the hills to the northwest of Kyoto proper, an artists' colony that included Kôetsu's extended family, and roughly fifty other households. Most, if not all, of the members of the community were commoners (chônin - townspeople), but were rather prominent and influential townsmen; whether for Kôetsu or Sôtatsu specifically, or for the community more generally, Takagamine saw not infrequent visits from noblemen, and on at least one occasion, in 1638, from the Empress Tôfukumon'in.

Once Sôtatsu came to focus more heavily on Imperial and shogunate commissions, he turned over the Tawaraya to his successor, Tawaraya Sôsetsu.

Style and Famous Works

Sôtatsu studied under a Kanô artist, and painted in a very contemporary style for his time. Yet, he drew upon the yamato-e tradition, and various aspects of Heian period style and motifs heavily in his work.

Along with Hon'ami Kôetsu, who often did calligraphy for Sôtatsu's paintings, he produced a number of works focusing on calligraphic inscriptions of Heian period poetry, e.g. by the Sanjûrokkasen, or referring to Heian period themes, e.g. from the Tale of Genji or Tales of Ise. Many of these smaller scale works were done on decorated paper, using silver or gold leaf or paint.

In his larger-scale work, Sôtatsu is known especially for his folding screen byôbu paintings, in bright colors against a gold-foil ground. Two of his most famous works are a pair of screens owned by the temple Kennin-ji in Kyoto, depicting Raijin and Fûjin (Gods of Thunder and Wind), and a pair of screens known as the Matsushima Screens, today in the collection of the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Both of these works were copied roughly a century later by Ogata Kôrin[2], and have been referenced and reproduced countless times since.


  • Lillehoj, Elizabeth. Art and Palace Politics in Early Modern Japan 1580s-1680s. Brill Publishing, 2011. pp176-184.
  • Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. pp267-271.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. pp267-271.
  2. One of Kôrin's pair of Matsushima Screens are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.