A preeminent force behind the artistic flowering of 17th-century Japan, Hon'ami Koetsu was born in Kyoto in 1558. In his youth he witnessed the near-destruction of his native city by the invading forces of the warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), who would consolidate his power over Japan and bring an end to a prolonged period of civil strife. Koetsu's father, Kataoka Koji (1524-1603), was a sword specialist, a vital occupation during times of war, and he trained Koetsu in the skills of sword polishing and appraising.
At that time, Kyoto was Japan's only major city, and by the late 16th century it was again a secure and thriving commercial and cultural center, and entered an era marked by experimentation and creative freedom. Like Florence during the Renaissance and Paris in the 1920s, Kyoto was a magnet for a group of extraordinarily talented individuals, and Koetsu was the catalyst for numerous collaborative efforts that redefined Japanese artistic creation. An amateur participant in No theater (a traditional Japanese art form that combines dance, drama, music and poetry), Koetsu became involved in the design of No texts, featuring bold mica-printed covers and his own calligraphy.
Although he would now be considered an art director par excellence, it was his calligraphy that brought Koetsu greatest acclaim in his own day. Collaborating with the painter Tawaraya Sotatsu (died c. 1640) and the papermaker Kamishi Soji (dates unknown) to produce beautiful fans, poetry cards, and handscrolls, Koetsu found inspiration in the classical poetry of the 9th through 12th centuries, which he reinterpreted in striking ways. He produced classical texts as luxury-edition printed books for members of the newly prosperous Kyoto mercantile elite who were eager to share in classical culture. Celebrated by his contemporaries, Koetsu's reputation as a calligrapher was assured soon after his death, when he was designated one of the "Three Brushes of Kan'ei"--that is, one of the three best calligraphers of his era.
So highly esteemed was Koetsu's calligraphy that even his shortest letters were saved for posterity by those eager to have a sample of his work. These letters--more than 300 of which are still preserved--reflect a man of action and intense focus: "Send me enough white and red clay for four teabowls. Please hurry." Many of his letters attest to Koetsu's active participation in tea gatherings, which were the literary and cultural salons of his day.
Koetsu in 1615 received a grant of land in Takagamine, north of Kyoto, where he moved with a group of family and friends who shared religious and artistic ties (the relationship between art and religion in Japan at this time was one of mutual interaction and inspiration, and not a matter of secular versus sacred). A deeply devoted Buddhist, four of his calligraphies of Buddhist texts featured in The Arts of Hon'ami Koetsu, Japanese Renaissance Master (on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from July 29 through October 29, 2000) have been designated Important Cultural Properties.
A life of religious devotion, art, tea and reclusion at Takagamine continued for Koetsu until his death in 1637, at the age of 79 (in his native country, where an individual's first year is counted from birth, he would have been considered 80 years of age at the time of death). Miraculously, many of his works--which are distinguished by lasting beauty and spectacular quality--have survived the nearly four centuries since Koetsu played so vital a role in creating them. An imagined portrait of Koetsu painted in 1915 shows him as an august figure in Buddhist robes. This reverential image of the artist contentedly retired after a lifetime of creative endeavor conveys the high esteem and affection in which Koetsu continues to be held.