Sakai Hōitsu secured a permanent place for the style of Ogata Kōrin (“Ogata-ryū” in Hōitsu’s parlance) in Edo in the early 19th century. Together with his most accomplished pupil, Suzuki Kiitsu, Hōitsu established a new and distinctive approach to painting and decorative arts now called “Edo Rimpa,” which would have a lasting impact on Japanese painting into the modern era. Studies of Hōitsu and Kiitsu have steadily increased since the 1980s, and have culminated in recent years in books and exhibitions devoted to their art. The large numbers of paintings and works in other media that have come to light in the past two decades have resulted in a richly textured understanding of Hōitsu’s career, with expectations for similar advances in the study of Kiitsu expected to follow.
The letters by Sakai Hōitsu and Suzuki Kiitsu offer unusually fertile material for studying these painters’ lives and artistic careers. In comparison to equally renowned painters of the Edo period, such as Maruyama Ōkyo and Nagasawa Rosetsu, letters by Hōitsu and Kiitsu survive in large numbers. Beyond the transcription of a limited number in printed form, however, they have not received extensive examination. This paper will investigate a selection of letters by Hōitsu and Kiitsu in order to discover their working processes as painters, and will seek to address a series of questions: What was their relationship to their patrons and who were they? What was the role of their studio assistants? What do they say about matters related to procuring materials, subject matter, and payment? Do their letters reveal anything concrete about surviving works from their oeuvre?