Ike Taiga was a major representative of the literati (bunjin), or southern (nanga), movement of Japanese painting, which referred heavily to an idealized version of China. The movement particularly flourished in the eighteenth century, inspired in part by the influx of printed Chinese painting manuals (and their Japanese reprints).
Although literati painters ventured into nature to capture so-called “true views” (shinkeizu), they also relied on books like the Mustard Seed Garden Manual (in Japanese, Kaishien gaden; in Chinese, Jieziyuan Huazhuan). The manual contains examples of Chinese painting styles, which Taiga studied and then idealized in paintings such as Traveling in the Ravine. In this way, the work draws an intriguing link between painting and print. For example, the figure of a gentleman scholar walking along a bridge is reminiscent of the attire, posture, and brushwork found in figures in the Mustard Seed Garden Manual’s fifth volume. The same is true for the trees, whose foliage stylistically refers to another major painting manual, Genealogy of Eight Types of Painting (in Japanese, Hasshu gafu; in Chinese, Bazhong huapu).
Done in ink and light color on paper, Traveling in the Ravine is a typical example of Taiga’s small-scale paintings. An inscription in the artist’s hand describes the scene: “Walking in the ravine, where the water flows [into the river].” The work is signed “Kashō sha,” one of Taiga’s pseudonyms, with two seals: the rectangular intaglio seal at top reads “Taiga,” and the larger, square relief seal beneath it reads “Ike Mumei.” Both seals are common among paintings by Taiga, and his “Ike Mumei” seal often is found on his signature works. The presence of both seals, however, is relatively rare.
Such works often circulated among literati artists’ extensive social networks, both in Taiga’s time and later. This painting used to be in the collection of Iida Yoshine (1898–1960), an accomplished haikai poet. It is easy to imagine that the work inspired Iida’s poetry, drawing an appealing link between eighteenth-century painting and twentieth-century poetry. His daughter, Sanae Iida Reeves, a Freer|Sackler benefactor and docent emerita, has given the museums other paintings by Taiga (F1994.27; F2011.4a–c) and related artists. These paintings illustrate the intimate side of literati art and networks.
Works by literati artists are desirable additions to the Freer collection since the genre was dismissed by early twentieth-century collectors, including Charles Lang Freer. Today, Freer|Sackler curators recognize that literati arts are crucial for telling the story of early modern Japanese painting and should remain a core focus for new acquisitions.