Yamauba and Kintarō

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  • Catalogue text

    Kintarō, the mythological child-hero possessing enormous strength, was lost in the mountains as an infant and taken care of by Yama-uba (the mountain nurse or witch). The infant here is cradled close to Yama-uba’s chest in her tattered robes. The hag with her thinning hair, enormous jaw and oversized hands and feet is a truly gruesome figure. Her expression as she stares straight at the viewer is one of confidence and perhaps mild annoyance as well. Kintarō’s axe lays on the ground in front.

    Rosetsu was drawn to the odder figures in folklore such as Yama-uba, Chinese eccentrics and ghosts [for example, there is Hanshan and Feng Kan, a two-panel screen in the Tokyo National Museum, a hanging scroll painting of Hanshan and Shide in Kōzanji, Wakayama, and Ghost and Sea God and Sea Turtle in the Joe Price collection]. He also took up the subject of the mountain witch in a large-scale votive plaque in Itsukushima shrine in 1797, which shows her dressed as a courtesan while Kintarō pulls at her robes. Again, she stares straight at us, while her oversized hands and feet spill out of her shredding clothing. Yet another image of Yama-uba by Rosetsu in the Price collection shows her as a somewhat awkward, but otherwise pleasant figure [this is reproduced in Puraisu Korekushon Kaiga, Catalogue of Japanese Art in Foreign Collections (Tokyo: kobunkazai kagaku kenkyūkai, 1994), vol. 4, plate 122].

    Rosetsu was born into a low-ranking samurai family. He entered Maruyama Ōkyo's studio and became arguably the most talented of the master’s pupils. It is unclear, but it seems Rosetsu was forced out of the studio due to his idiosyncratic manner. After becoming independent, Rosetsu's own painting style continued to develop, and he is hailed as one of the true free spirits of the Edo period, whose dynamic way of painting crosses divisions of school and media. The paintings of this much-beloved eccentric continue to gain great attention. The fan in the Ashmolean can be assigned to Rosetsu’s later career in which his individual style apart from that of his teacher is fully expressed. In addition, the signature is in keeping with those on works done when Rosetsu was around forty years old.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 23 on pp. 94-95, p. 84, illus. pp. 94-95

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