A willow tree stands on the shore of an expansive waterfront, swaying in the gentle breeze. Beneath it are two figures in a boat drifting among lotuses. The figure on the left is possibly Zhou Maoshu (also known as Zhou Dunyi; 1017–73), a Chinese Confucian scholar of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1279) and founder of the neo-Confucian school of thought. Zhou is well known for his appreciation for the lotus, having composed “On Loving Lotuses,” a text extolling it as the noblest of flowers for how it grows in the swamp but remains clean and untainted. Japanese intellectuals of the Muromachi period (14th–16th century), who had developed an appreciation for Chinese culture from a familiarity with its literary traditions, interpreted this work as a depiction of Zhou’s fascination with lotuses, a narrative with which they were familiar.
We know from the seal at the bottom-right corner that this is a work by Kanō Masanobu (1434–1530). Masanobu was the founder of the Kanō school of painting, a lineage of painters that had dominated the industry until the late Edo period (19th century). He was also an official painter for the Ashikaga shogunate, having served the eighth shogun Yoshimasa (1436–90).
The willow tree in this work appears almost identical in design to one in a copy of Ma Yuan’s Herons beneath a Willow (currently owned by the Tokyo University of the Arts), a Chinese court painter of the Southern Song dynasty. It is thus likely that Masanobu had studied Southern Song Chinese court paintings from the Ashikaga shogunal family’s collection, and applied what he had learned in the creation of this work. Many ink paintings in the Muromachi period mimicked the brushwork of certain Chinese painters; this work is an example of one that takes after Ma Yuan’s style. As such, it is important not only as a work of art, but as a piece documenting the way Muromachi-period Japanese paintings were typically created with imitative brushwork.
This painting is a masterpiece that represents ink paintings of the Higashiyama cultural circle that had flourished in Kyoto during the Muromachi period, and is also the only piece by Masanobu to have been designated a National Treasure. It was once owned by the feudal Date clan.