Asian Studies, Author Posts, East Asian Studies, Guest Posts, Museums/Exhibits, Painting, Video

Tiger stripes in ink and gold

Felice Fischer –

As curator of the exhibition, Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano, on view now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I often am asked, “which painting do you like best?”  This is a difficult question to answer, akin to asking a parent to name a favorite child.  Nevertheless, there are inevitably some works that speak to me more than others. One image of which I am particularly fond is the tiger sleeping on one of the eight sliding door panels coming to Philadelphia from the venerable Kyoto temple, Nanzen-ji.

sleeping tiger

The eight sliding doors are part of a larger ensemble of panels depicting tigers in a three-room building that are part of the temple abbot’s quarters.  It is thought that the panels were originally made for and housed in a castle in the 1630s, and moved to Nanzen-ji  in the 1650s. The paintings are attributed to the great seventeenth-century artist Kano Tan’yū (1602-1674), who is known to have created tiger- themed wall paintings for other sites, such as Nijō Castle and Nagoya Castle.  Japanese castles of this period were built and decorated in a regulated format and style: there were a series of buildings, moving from public waiting rooms and reception halls at the front, to gradually more private spaces that comprised the living quarters at the rear of the complex.  The painted decorations also changed to follow the physical layout, with more impressive, colorful images in the public spaces, and quieter, more subdued monochrome ink paintings in the private rooms.

sliding doors

The painted pride of tigers was invariably part of the public halls, usually spread out over three rooms that housed the lord’s retainers and guards.  The tigers were meant to reflect the power and authority of the lord of the castle, to keep evil spirits at bay while inspiring awe in the viewer.  The source for tigers as a subject matter, like much else in Japanese culture, came from China.  There the tiger was one of the Daoist guardians of the four directions, traditionally associated with the West, and often paired with the guardian of the East, the dragon. In the tenth to eleventh centuries , this pairing was adapted by Zen Buddhists, and monochrome ink renderings of the two often flank a middle scroll with an image of Kannon, the bodhisattva  of mercy in Buddhist lore.  Zen artists also took up the theme of tigers in a grouping called “The Four Sleepers.”  Three of the sleepers are Zen eccentrics and the fourth companion is a tiger.  Their tranquil napping symbolized the peace found by those who have attained Buddhist enlightenment, and the subject became a popular one outside Zen circles as well.

Kano Tan’yū’s sleeping feline is accompanied by a cub licking his fur, and another adult tiger scratching its chin.  The latter beast is spotted rather than striped. As tigers were not native to Japan, artists had only pelts or other paintings to go by, and there was some confusion about “spotted” tigers.  Often the smaller tigers, whether meant to be female or cubs, are spotted.  While Tan’yū  never saw an actual tiger, his models may have been the menagerie of cats owned by one of his patrons, Sakuma Shōgen Sanekatsu.  Tan’yū painted a “double portrait” of Sakuma with his favorite cat, which is also in the exhibition.  No matter what his source , Tan’yū certainly captured that absolute contentment of a deep feline sleep.9780300210491



Felice Fischer is Luther W. Brady Curator of Japanese Art and Senior Curator of East Asian Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  She is curator of the exhibition and co-author of the accompanying volume, Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano.  Here is a lovely introductory video about the Kano, featuring Felice Fischer:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *