The creator behind that “Great Wave” poster in your college dorm — Hokusai, the early 19th-century painter and printmaker — wasn’t the only Japanese artist to depict towering waves on the sea, and he certainly wasn’t the first.
A new exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, “Sotatsu: Making Waves,” celebrates the work of Tawaraya Sotatsu, who lived about 200 years before Hokusai and painted his fair share of waves.

“Sotatsu is the most influential unknown Japanese painter,” says James Ulak, Sackler’s senior curator of Japanese art. “Although he was fairly well-known when he was alive, his name and reputation vanished into oblivion after his death.”
In fact, if it weren’t for American industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer, Sotatsu might have been completely forgotten.

After Freer learned about the painter on one of his trips to Japan, Sotatsu’s works found their way to the West, inspiring countless artists working in the art deco style in the early 1900s. “Freer brought Sotatsu to such prominence,” Ulak says. “Making Waves” is the Western hemisphere’s first major Sotatsu exhibition, featuring more than 70 pieces by the artist himself — and works by artists he inspired — from collections in Japan, Europe and the U.S.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; through Jan. 31, free.

‘Coxcombs, Maize and Morning Glories’
Artists unknown, Edo period, 17th century


(Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian)

In the 17th century, as the Japanese warrior and merchant classes began forming, formerly exorbitant, upper-class items like painted fans and folding screens became very chic. At roughly the same time, there was a trend in planting gardens with exotic plants and flowers, like cockscombs and poppies. According to Ulak, painted screens like this one “memorialize these fashions.” He notes that this screen is likely not one of Sotatsu’s, but the artist’s influence is undeniable. Artists back then worked together in studios and jointly took ownership of all their work, Ulak says.

‘Waves at Matsushima’ (Matsushima-zu)
Tawaraya Sotatsu, Edo period, 17th century


(Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian)

(Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian)

After three years of negotiations with a Buddhist temple in Japan, Freer acquired “Waves at Matsushima” in 1906. The painting incorporates Sotatsu’s characteristic techniques of “pooled ink,” which looks kind of like watercolor, and object contour lines purposely showing through the fields of color. This novel style was later dubbed Rinpa. “Sotatsu wasn’t interested in line and the constant immutability of things,” Ulak says. “He was always mildly subversive.”

‘Poems from the Kokinshu Anthology’
Paper design by Tawaraya Sotatsu, calligraphy by Hon’ami Koetsu, Edo period, early 17th century


(Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian)

Sotatsu was a paper producer and fan shop owner by trade, and he first met Koetsu when the calligrapher came in to order some paper. Soon, the two began collaborating on artwork. “They worked almost like a jazz combo,” Ulak says, “often in the same room, bent over the same piece of paper.” Together, Sotatsu and Koetsu started an artist colony in Kyoto in 1615, championing the Rinpa style.