Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges)

Ogata Kōrin (Japanese, 1658–1716)

Edo period (1615–1868)
after 1709
Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink and color on gilt paper
Image (each screen): 64 7/16 in. x 11ft. 6 3/4 in. (163.7 x 352.4 cm) Overall (each screen): 70 1/2 in. x 12 ft. 2 1/4 in. (179.1 x 371.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Louisa Eldridge McBurney Gift, 1953
Accession Number:
53.7.1, .2
  • Description

    Ogata Kōrin, the celebrated painter from Kyoto, depicted irises in many variations and media, and they became a standard theme among his followers. Here, their stately, vertical forms set against an angular bridge that sweeps diagonally across both screens reference an episode in The Ise Stories (Ise monogatari). Exiled from Kyoto after an affair with a high-ranking court lady, the story’s protagonist stops at Yatsuhashi, a place where a stream branches into eight channels, each with its own bridge. The sight of irises prompts him to compose a nostalgic love poem. The first syllable of each line of the poem forms the Japanese word for irises (kakitsubata), keeping in mind that ha and ba were written with the same character in ancient times. The English translation, though unable to convey the complex wordplay of the original, is also an acrostic:

    kitsutsu narenishi
    tsuma shi areba
    harubaru kinuru
    tabi o shi zo omou

    I wear robes with well-worn hems,
    Reminding me of my dear wife
    I fondly think of always,
    So as my sojourn stretches on
    Ever farther from home,
    Sadness fills my thoughts.

    —Trans. John T. Carpenter