Yamaguchi Soken, 倭人物画譜, En’o Gafu 圓翁画譜, ca. 1837

Title: En’o gafu 圓翁画譜

Artist: Yamaguchi Soken

Medium: Woodblock printed; ink and color on paper.

Tress Collection, Box 28, Item 17


Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795) was highly celebrated for his naturalistic renderings of flowers, birds, and animals. Widely admired for his skill as an artist, Ōkyo was also known in his lifetime as an influential mentor to later Japanese-style artists. One of the most well known was Matsumura Goshun 松村 呉春 (1752-1811). Initially, Goshun requested Ōkyo as a mentor; instead, the master welcomed Goshun as an equal and fellow artist. The Murayama-Shijo style has come to refer to the approaches developed by Okyo and Goshun in painting.

Ōkyo’s student, Yamaguchi Soken designed the illustrations in the En’o gafu book as an homage to Ōkyo’s skill and influence. Soken’s illustrations in the book are rendered after Ōkyo’s paintings and show how highly regarded Ōkyo was by later generations.

Soken selected many of Ōkyo’s paintings to be included here, making sketches after Ōkyo’s paintings; these were transferred to woodblocks to be printed on paper. Soken also included a number that show the social contrasts between the commoners and the rich during the period. This book was published in 1837, over 40 years after Ōkyo’s death, during the Great Tenpō Famine.

Similar to Ōkyo and the French realist painter Gustave Courbet, Soken makes the wide range of people illustrated more inclusive and we may wonder whether his selection of individuals deliberately put in contrast the old and feeble, the fishermen with the merchants, and the upper class who were afforded leisure and gluttony during a time of great famine.


Other Copies

Yale University

National Library of Israel

Pulverer collection, Freer Gallery of Art


Selected Readings

Chibbett, David G. The History of Japanese Printing and Book Illustration. Kodansha International; New York: distributed by Harper & Row, 1977.

Foxwell, Chelsea. Making Modern Japanese-style Painting: Kano Hogai and the Search for Images. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Hall, John Whitney. The Cambridge History of Japan: Early Modern Japan. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hillier. J. The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Published for Sotheby’s Publications by Philip Wilson Publishers; New York, 1987.

Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

Paine, Robert Treat, and Alexander Coburn Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Yale University Press, 1981.

Sullivan, Michael. The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art (Revised and expanded ed.). 1989.


Post by Kemuel Benyehudah

Yamaguchi Soken 山口素絢 Soken gafu sōka no bu 素絢画譜草花之部, 1806

Yamaguchi Soken 山口素絢 (1759-1818)

Soken gafu sōka no bu 素絢画譜草花之部

Volumes 1-3

Publisher: Hishiya Magobē and Noda Kasuke, Kyoto

Edo period (1603-1686), 1806

Woodblock printed book; ink on paper

26.9 x 18.6 cm

In Soken gafu sōka no bu, Yamaguchi Soken illustrates seventy-three kinds of plants in three volumes. The opening shown here presents a bitter melon in full bloom, the tendrils of the plant arching gracefully across the page. To achieve the variation of tone, the leaves were carved in lower relief than the vines, attainingthe effect of gradation of color in a single monochrome block. This visual style and innovative method of using a single block came to be associated with Soken. The more frequently employed technique of printing with two separate blocks to apply various shades of ink also appears in this book.

Soken was often employed to produce illustrations for painting manuals. The publisher’s colophon page advertises another Soken-illustrated title,Yamato jinbutsu gafu (Picture Album of the People of Yamato), issued in two parts a few years earlier, in 1799 and 1804. The colophon also advertises that Soken’s painting manual of landscapes, figures, and flower-and-bird scenes will soon be published; however, only the volume on landscapes came to print. Soken was probably commissioned by his publishers to produce studies on various painting themes, and he may have been responding to Chinese painting manuals like the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting

The preface to Soken gafu sōka no bu introduces two approaches to flower-and-bird painting and elevates Soken as one of the great painters of this subject. It reports that the subject was established by Chinese painters Huang Quan (903-965) and Xu Xi (d. 975), who used detailed linework and vibrant color. The freehand style of the monochrome paintings that flourished during the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644) constituted the next phase of development. It further claims that Soken has surpassed both of these lineages and is thus no longer limited by imitation. The preface adds that painting manuals as a genre had become a device of promoting the painter, often through dialogues with established precedents in Chinese painting.

The second and third volumes in the Tress collection include plant names inscribed in red, but the first volume does not, suggesting that these volumes were brought together at some point to form a set. This is further indicated by the different collectors’ seals and inscriptions in the first volume and the other two volumes.

Tim Zhang


Selected Readings:

Mitchell, Charles H. The Illustrated Books of the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijo and Other Related Schools of Japan: A Biobibliography. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1972.

Suzuki, Jun, and Ellis Tinios. Understanding Japanese Woodblock-Printed Illustrated Books: A Short Introduction to Their History, Bibliography and Format. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Tinios, Ellis. “Soken gafu sōka no bu.” The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book: F|S Pulverer Collection, 2016. https://pulverer.si.edu/node/411/title/1.

Yamaguchi Soken 山口素絢, Yamato jinbutsu gafu kōhen 倭人物画譜後編, 1804

Otsu-e, volume 1

Artist: Yamaguchi Soken 山口素絢 (1759 – 1818)

Title: Yamato jinbutsu gafu kōhen 倭人物画譜後編 (Album of Japanese People in Painting, 2nd Part )

Date: 11th month, 1804 (Bunka 1)

Description: 3 volumes

Medium:  Woodblock printed; ink on paper; paper cover

Dimensions: 18 cm x 26 cm

Publisher: Hishiya Magobē 菱屋孫兵衛

Gift of Mr. Arthur Tress

Object Number: Box 8, Item 14 https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9977502576003681

Yamato jinbutsu gafu kōhen is the 3-volume sequel to Yamato jinbutsu gafu (Tress Collection: Box 8, Item 12)which was published in 1799. The series features daily life scenes in Edo-period Japan, illustrated by Yamaguchi Soken (1759 – 1818), and includes people of different occupations and social classes. The first images of each volume of Yamato jinbutsu gafu kōhen are illustrations in the style of Otsu-e, a folk-art tradition which was flourished in Otsu, on the Tōkaidō road. The first featured image here is the first illustration of the first volume; here, a man with a hunting falcon is represented in print as thought painted with rough and quick brushstrokes. It is likely that Soken selected these Otsu-e to pay tribute to this painting tradition.  Scenes of people working are featured throughout this book. In the third volume, the complete process of rice harvesting is depicted, from planting in the early spring to harvesting in the late fall, as may be seen in the selected illustration.

Yamaguchi Soken was actively involved in publishing illustrated books, especially painting albums. He is known to have studied with Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795). According to the preface of Yamato jinbutsu gafu, written by Akisato Ritō, Soken was the second son of a kimono merchant in Kyoto. This book, Yamato jinbutsu gafu kōhen, was published in 1804, and he followed this up with Soken gafu sōka no bu (Tress Collection: Box 40, Item 15) in 1806, a title fully devoted to plants. In 1818, his pictures designed for an album of landscapes, Soken sansui gafu (Tress Collection: Box 56, Item 16), was published. Many of Soken’s paintings were collected in his lifetime and many survive in museum collections, but in eighteenth-century Japan, it is likely that his painting albums reached a greater readership. His printed books remained of interest to later artists, as may be seen in Kawanabe Kyōsai’s (1831-1889) Kyōsai gadan (Tress Collection: Box 39, Item 1) where Kyōsai shows a design based upon Soken’s Soken gafu sōka no bu.

Other copies of this book are in Freer Gallery of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and Waseda University

Selected Reading

Hillier, Jack. 1987. The art of the Japanese book. London: Wilson for Sotheby’s Publications. 532-537

Keyes, Roger S. 2007. Ehon: the artist and the book in Japan. New York, NY: New York Public Library. 140-141

Posted by Tim Zhang, 2019