Gibbons in a Landscape

Artist: Sesson Shūkei (ca. 1504–ca. 1589)

Period: Muromachi period (1392–1573)

Date: ca. 1570

Culture: Japan

Medium: Pair of six-panel screens; ink on paper

Dimensions: Image (each screen): 62 in. x 11 ft. 5 in. (157.5 x 348 cm)

Classification: Screens

Credit Line: Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Vincent Astor Foundation, Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, and Florence and Herbert Irving Gifts, 1992

Accession Number: 1992.8.1, .2


The gibbon, native to the forested mountains of southern China, is known in Japan only through painting and poetry. In literary contexts, its cry is associated with the elevated spirit of solitude, and in Daoist lore with a superior life force. Japanese Zen monks treasured images of gibbons painted by the Chinese monk Muqi (ca. 1210–after 1269), and by the late fifteenth century paintings of gibbons in the manner of this artist had become a favored subject for screen decoration. Here a chain of gibbons is shown reaching futilely for a reflection of the moon, a symbol of enlightenment. This scene illustrates a fundamental Zen paradox: if one is deliberately or overly anxiously trying to attain enlightenment, then that spiritual path will not lead to true enlightenment.

As reflected in the subject matter of many of his paintings, Sesson was a Zen monk-artist. He was a highly learned and prolific painter who studied a wide array of earlier Chinese ink painting styles and played a major role in the creation of a distinctive Japanese style of so-called Zen ink painting.