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The Twelve Zodiac Animals as Poets (Jûnishi Kasen) 2

The Twelve Zodiac Animals as Poets (Jûnishi Kasen), Early Edo period, late 17th century

Attributed to Kano Shôun, Japanese (1637 – 1702)

Handscroll; ink, color and gold on paper

H. 35.8 x W. 378.9 cm (14 1/8 x 149 3/16 in.)

Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of the Hofer Collection of the Arts of Asia


The works of famous Japanese poets from different historical periods were copied, compiled, and pitted against one another in “competitions” that mirrored actual poetry contests held at court. The competing verses were sometimes accompanied by depictions of their authors. A tradition of painted poet “portraits” evolved in tandem with a taste for realism during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), although the images were based on imagined likenesses rather than on actual appearance.

This scroll satirizes those earlier literary and pictorial legacies by portraying the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar) in the guise of traditional Japanese poets. Each wears a sumptuously rendered costume–the tiger, rabbit, and dragon in the robes of high-ranking male courtiers; the snake in the exquisite multilayered dress of a court lady. Each is seated against a gold-misted ground beneath an appropriate verse.