Tale of the Bamboo Cutter


Shibata Zeshin ( Japanese, 1807 - 1891 )

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General Description

This elegant painting by Shibata Zeshin illustrates the story of a man who found a young girl while he was cutting bamboo. He raised the young girl, and when she became mature she was so beautiful that many men, including the emperor, wanted to marry her. But she was not made for the human world. On a full moon night in autumn, she revealed that she was not mortal and had to return to her moon, whereupon she disappeared, leaving her father and would-be lovers desolate.

Using a typically Japanese open composition, in which space is intentionally ill-defined so that the viewer's imagination has free play, Zeshin has shown the moment of the bamboo cutter's shocked surprise at the revelation of his adopted daughter. Also typical of Japanese pictorial composition is the non-symmetrical placement of the figures, with most of the compositional weight to the lower right. Such a composition required exact placement of each element so that a balanced tension would be maintained between mass and open space. A final touch was the strategic sprinkling of clouds of gold, an echo within Zeshin's more realistic portrayal of his figures of the decorative effects favored for screen painting since the 16th-century Momoyama period.

Zeshin (1807-1891) was a member of the Shijo school. This school, which dominated the art world of Kyoto for most of the 19th century, was notable for its realistic representations, as well as an interest in a return to themes drawn from literature.

Adapted from

  • Label text, Arts of Asia, 2018.

  • Dallas Museum of Fine Arts Newsletter, Summer 1970.

Web Resources

  • Ashmolean Museum
    Learn more about Shijo and other major schools of nineteenth century Japanese painting.