Daily Art Moment: Keisai Eisen

1. Ox figurine and writing desk, Keisai Eisen, 1 9/16 x 6 11/16 inches, color woodblock print with metallic pigments and embossing on paper. A vertical rectangular print featuring a black ox figurine resting on top of small futon mats atop a writing box near a writing table and other objects. The vignette is situated in the lower two thirds of the print. The sleeping ox figurine sits on three small multi-colored futon mats which in turn rests on a black and gold patterned writing box. In front of the box is a pale peach writing desk with short legs showing a fan shaped cut out on the sides. Folded fans lay near the desk and a blooming flower in a blue and white pot sits on the edge of the desk. Poems written in Japanese climb from the center left of the print to the upper center. 2. The print is seen in axial light showing the gold and silver details on the objects. The black ox now appears to be charcoal in color and outlined in black. 3. Detail of the ox figurine and futon mats. The ox’s legs, tail, skin folds and facial features are outlined in black. It has ivory-colored horns on either side of a gold disc on its forehead and gold eyes. The futon mats are each have a different pattern and color: silver on beige, gold on rust and silver on teal.

In 2021, the Year of the Ox begins. 1829 was also an ox year. Poets in Mino province commissioned the artist Keisai Eisen to design this special print to commemorate the new year. Privately commissioned prints like these are called surimono and feature expensive materials and techniques.

This small ox figurine, sitting on layered futon mats, would have been stroked by its owner while making a wish. Other elegant objects are arranged nearby, including a lacquered writing box and writing desk, folding fans, and a potted Adonis flower (in Japanese, fukujusō), an auspicious symbol of the New Year. Perhaps the best poem for us, almost 200 years later, is the third one, by Shūchōdō:

Futon are piled up
beneath the stroking-ox,
as wishes woven
in a New Year’s dream
really come true.

Jeannie Kenmotsu, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Asian Art⠀

Keisai Eisen (Japanese, 1790-1848), Ox figurine and writing desk, 1829, color woodblock print with metallic pigments and embossing on paper; shikishiban surimono, image: 7 9/16 in x 6 11/16 in; sheet: 7 7/8 in x 6 11/16 in, The Mary Andrews Ladd Collection, 32.728

Notice glints of gold and silver pigments photographed in axial light. You can also see how the embossed contours of the ox figurine are outlined in dark black ink, over a layer of sparkling mica.

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