Tomioka Tessai (富岡鉄斎)

Tessai TOMIOKA (January 25, 1837 - December 31, 1924) was a literati painter and Confucianist during the Meiji and Taisho Periods. He is considered to be the last of the literati painters in Japan.


He was born in Kyoto City (Sanjo-dori Shinmachi Higashi) as the second son of Korenobu TOMIOKA, who ran Denbei JUICHIYA making and selling Buddhist vestments. His childhood name is unknown. He was commonly called Yusuke, later changed to Dosetsu, then changed temporarily to Tessai, and changed again to Hyakuren. His adult name was Muken and his pseudonym was Tessai. He also had different pseudonyms, including Tetsujin, Tetsushi and Tetsugai.

He was slightly hard of hearing yet he studied hard from a young age, learning Sekimon Shingaku, which is the course of study followed by the Tomioka family. From the age of 15, he studied Kokugaku (the study of the Japanese classics) and loyalism under Takamasa OKUNI and Kangaku (the study of the Chinese classics), Yomeigaku (doctrines of Wang Yang-Ming) and Chinese poetry under Gesshu IWAGAKI. In 1855, when he was 18 years old, he was sent to Rengetsu OTAGAKI, a nun and female poet, to receive further education. The following year, he was taught a mixture of various styles of painting from Setsuyo KUBOTA and Nanko OSUMI, as well as Nanga (Chinese style painting) from Kaisen ODA and Yamato-e (classical Japanese style painting) from Ikkei UKITA. In 1861, he went to Nagasaki to receive training at the Nagasaki Nanga school of art from Tetsuo SOMON and Itsuun KINOSHITA. The following year, in 1861, Tessai met Seiitsu YAMANAKA (Shinteno), and began making his living from artwork. At about this time, he opened a private school.

After the Meiji Restoration, he served as the Chief Priest at the Shikigami-jinja Shrine in Yamato and the Otori-jinja Shrine in Izumi, from 30 to his mid 40s. During his service as Shinto Priest, he restored the Shikinaisha (Shrine registered with Jinmyocho of Engishiki) of the Kayanaru-no-mikoto-jinja Shrine in Yamato. Following his motto, "Read many books and travel many miles," he traveled to many locations in Japan. In 1874, his relationship with Takeshiro MATSUURA took him to Hokkaido, where he created his masterpiece, Kyu-Ezo Fuzoku-zu, a painting depicting customs of the old Ezo region and expressing the life of the Ainu people.

When he was 30 years old, he married Kayo NAKAJIMA's daughter. They had a girl, but his wife passed away. Later, he remarried and had a son.

In 1881, upon his older brother Denbei's death, he went back to Kusuriya-cho in Kyoto, where he lived the rest of his life.

He was also active as a teacher, teaching at the Shijuku Ritsumeikan (Ritsumeikan Private Academy) in 1869. In 1893, he became a teacher at the Kyoto City Dohda Senior High School of Art and taught ethics until 1904.

On New Years Eve of 1924, his old ailment, cholelithiasis, flared up. He passed away at his home in Kyoto. He was 90 years old.

His Works of Art

His art works were gradually recognized with the passing of time. He was appointed judge of the Kyoto Young Men's Society of Painting (1886), became a member of the Kyoto Fine Arts Association (1890), an advisor to the Kyoto City Young Painter Exhibition of Japan (1891), a Teishitsu Gigeiin (Imperial art expert) (1917) and was a member of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy (1919). During this time, in 1897, he established the Nanga Association of Japan with Chokunyu TANOMURA and Aizan TANIGUCHI, with the aim of contributing to the development of Nanga. He also became friends with Gaho HASHIMOTO through Keinen IMAO, thus, deepening his connection with Meiji Kanto Gadan, a painter's circle.

He often served as judge at art contests, but he rarely submitted his work to contests. In 1897 and thereafter, he sent his work to the Nanga Association of Japan competition, an association for which he served as judge. In 1920, he submitted So Toba-zu (portrait of SoToba) in the memorial art exhibition to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of Shotoku Taishi's death as a countenancer. In 1922, he gave a private exhibition at the Takashimaya Department Store in Osaka.

Known as the last literati, Tessai called himself a scholar (Confucianist) and considered his artwork a hobby. He had often said, "I don't paint meaningless pictures," and "Look at the inscription first when you are looking at my paintings." Tessai's art style is based on his deep knowledge, with most of his works created under the theme of Chinese classics. His literati works are extremely creative and unique combining many art styles, including the schools of Yamato, Kano, Rin and Otsu (named after the town of Otsu in Shiga). It is said that the works he created over his lifetime number more than 10,000. His artistic work flourished even after he reached 80 years of age, painting great works with a rich sense of color. He considered himself a literati and his free and bold style has established him in his own position, gaining high praise from critics such as Ryuzaburo UMEHARA and Hideo KOBAYASHI (critic). He is still praised highly not only in Japan but also overseas.

Many of his works are stored and exhibited in the Tessa Museum at the Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji Temple, Takarazuka City and the Tatsu-uma Collection of Fine Arts in Nishinomiya City in Hyogo Prefecture.

Private Museum

Tessai Memorial Museum

Major works

Abe no Nakamaro Meishu Bogetsu-zu (The Poet Abe Nakamaro Contemplating the Moon in China), Entsu Daishi Gomon Insei-Zu (1914) (National Important Cultural Asset) Tatsuuma Collection of Fine Arts
Two Divinities Dancing, Tokyo National Museum
Ezo Fuzoku-Zu (A painting depicting custom of the old Ezo region) (1896)Tokyo National Museum
Fujin Sancho-zenzu (endless mountaintops)
Horai Senkyo-zu (Enchanted Land, Penglaishan)
Kobo Daishi-zo-zu (portrait of Kobo Daishi)
Buryo Togen-zu (1923)
Eishu Senkyo-zu (1923)
Abe-no-Nakamaro Writing a Japanese Poem While He was in Tang, Adachi Museum of Art


Book of paintings, Tessai Gasho (1913)
Book of paintings, Hyaku Toba-zu (1922)
Book of paintings, Beiju Bokugi (1923)
Inpu (compilation of seal marks) Muryoju Butsudo Inpu (Compilation of seal marks from seals for personal use by Shoseki KAWAI)