In Focus

The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup

Richly painted screens became the major form of decoration in the castles and palaces of the nobility and military lords in 16th century Japan. Painted on sliding doors and folding screen pairs, the compositions reflected a taste for grandeur and a sophisticated interest in Chinese subject matter, as well as natural scenery and local events.

These screens, titled The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, were painted around 1600 by an anonymous artist, and take their theme from a classical Chinese poem by the Chinese Tang dynasty poet, Tu Fu (712-770). Often called China's greatest poet, Tu Fu was born to a respected family of scholar-officials. He earned considerable reputation in his lifetime for his talents and skills as a writer and scholar. Nevertheless, as a young man he inexplicably failed the imperial examinations that were necessary to secure official appointments in government, and despite repeated subsequent attempts to correct his status, success eluded him. Consequently, Tu Fu lived an insecure and peripatetic life as he moved around the country from one minor post to another. However, he left behind a rich body of poetry that has earned him immortality. An introspective and disciplined man, his poems convey humility and a sense of empathy with the universal suffering of mankind.

The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup describes the conviviality and excessive drinking of eight real people, all of whom are representative of high society, including a prince, a prime minister, a Buddhist monk, a Taoist, poets, and artists. The poem describing their decadent conduct is intended to be read as a protest against accepted rules of decorum and customs in favor of a more naturalistic philosophy of life. Drunken revelry, a permissible form of escape for the Chinese bureaucrats, originated in a Taoist practice called ching-t'an, or "pure conversation," which allowed a small group of intellectuals to gather to relax and engage in witty conversation on philosophical matters as a respite from their conventional lives. For subsequent generations, even as the identities of the eight took on a legendary quality, the subject was a popular one in Chinese and Japanese painting, particularly among artists who painted in monochrome ink on paper.

The Dallas screens [1989.78.A-B.McD], painted in strong mineral colors on gold leaf, are an unusual version of the motif. In a garden setting, handsomely robed figures drink, converse, dance, and cavort in jovial camaraderie. Each composition of the pair features at its center a large tree and a table backed by a painted landscape screen. The theme of gentlemen gathered in a garden, as well as the use of the tree, painted screen, tables, and chairs as compositional devices, are common in Chinese paintings dated to the Yuan (1276-1336) and Ming (1336-1644) dynasties. It appears, therefore, the Japanese artist based this picture on an actual Chinese model. Certain motifs, such as the type of foliage and the form of water and rocks, support this suggestion. On the other hand, the elegantly detailed, colorful garments worn by the group are not typical of Chinese paintings of gentlemen, but are indicative, instead, of the high level of textile manufacture and interest in fancy clothes that were features of Japanese life at the turn of the 17th century.

The absence of formulaic devices characteristic of Japanese painting make it difficult to attribute this work to a particular artist or painting school. However, the great quality of the brushwork, the skillful depiction of a variety of moods and emotions, and the use of rich color and gold contribute to the outstanding originality of these screens.

Adapted from

Emily J. Sano, Object Summary, dated June 14, 1996, copy in Collections Records object file [1989.78.A-B.McD].

Related Multimedia

Collections smartphone audio about the poem upon witch this screen is based. Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, 1989.78.a-b.McD (DMA Collection)
Collections smartphone audio for Emma-O, 2008.25.a-h; Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, 1989.78.a-b.McD (DMA Collection)

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