Tomioka Tessai (1837–1924) is one of the most important cultural figures of Japan’s modern era. Born in Kyoto into a well-off family of dry goods merchants, he was entrusted early on into the care of Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791–1875), a nun, potter, poet, and political activist. Tessai collaborated with Rengetsu in art-making and helped her fire her signature pottery. This experience left a lasting impression on Tessai that helped shape his artistry for much of his life. Toward the latter part of his life, Tessai created ceramics himself. Other than Rengetsu, who would mold each piece herself, Tessai solicited the collaboration of Kiyomizu Rokubei IV, whose vessels Tessai adorned with his signature paintings. Rokubei hailed from a lineage of Kyoto-based potters that, among other objects, catered to the sencha tea tradition. The two objects offered by Mary and Cheney Cowles belong to that seventeenth-century Chinese-inspired tradition of brewing steeped tea. The bowl with a design of orchids and mushrooms showcases foods that were thought to grant everlasting life. In ancient Chinese mythology, orchids and mushrooms both contain the elixir of eternal youth and health. Their mythical, medicinal quality is celebrated in Tessai’s bowl.
Bowl with orchid and mushrooms
Tomioka Tessai and Kiyomizu Rokubei IV
Meiji era, 1910
stoneware with ash glaze and underglaze iron brown
H x Diam: 9.8 × 18.9 cm (3 7/8 × 7 7/16 in); Diam (foot): 10.5 cm (4 1/8 in)
The Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection, F2020.4.1a-g