Exhibitions/ Art Object

Response to an Invitation for a Tea Gathering

Hon'ami Kōetsu (Japanese, 1558–1637)
Edo period (1615–1868)
probably 1620s–30s
Letter mounted as a hanging scroll; ink on paper
Image: 10 7/8 x 19 1/2 in. (27.6 x 49.5 cm)
Overall with mounting: 42 1/2 x 21 1/4 in. (108 x 54 cm)
Credit Line:
Collection of Raymond and Priscilla Vickers
Not on view
Kōetsu used an elegant, flamboyant style of calligraphy when transcribing ancient poems, yet even in informal notes jotted off to friends, we can detect an energetic and bold style. In this letter inviting an acquaintance to a tea gathering, the extreme variation of character size and styles, as well as the balancing of dark and light ink tones, demonstrates that the writer was conscious of impressing the addressee.

Kōetsu took advantage of a convention of pre-modern letter writing by which the ending of the letter, which would normally be at the far left, could appear instead at the far right by going back and writing columns of text in the margins of the opening lines. In effect, a reader must skip over alternating columns of characters at the start of the letter, since those belong to a postscript. Because Kōetsu signed both the letter and the postscript, we can twice spot the calligrapher’s distinctive signature (a cipher conflating the two characters of “Kōetsu,” 光悦). The letter is addressed to an acquaintance named Sōzerō, the owner of a kimono shop in Kyoto, with whom he had tea.

Thank you for your letter, mentioning that you are hosting a tea gathering next month on the afternoon of either the 1st or 2nd, and I gratefully accept your kind invitation. I’m still not sure what day the Governor of Suo Province will be leaving, but I will try to find out the date when I visit tomorrow, and let you know if I can. Also, on the afternoon of the 24th, I will have a visit from Sōkatsurō and Sōwarō.

Best wishes, Tokuyūsai [name used by Kōetsu]. Sent to Master Sōzerō by Kōetsu [with kaō (handwritten seal)]

Are you coming to act on the matter you mentioned? I would be most grateful if you could join us.
19th day of the 10th month, respectfully sent to Sōzerō, by Kōetsu [with kaō]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art," May 26, 2012–January 13, 2013.