Ajita Sonja, the 15th Arhat
This painting depicts an imagined likeness of Ajita Sonja, the fifteenth of sixteen arhats (Worthy Ones) in the canonical grouping of the Great Disciples of Sakyamuni, or the Historical Buddha. (Other frequently used canonical arhat groupings are eighteen and five hundred.) These arhats, or sages, reached enlightenment through the teachings of the Historical Buddha. The painting is a study or copy made by the well-known and multitalented Japanese artist Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891). Zeshin produced the work during a period of study at the Tofukuji Zen Buddhist complex in Kyoto, probably in 1831. His model was one in a series of fourteenth-century arhat paintings owned by the temple. At the time, they were presumed to be of Chinese origin and only in the twentieth century understood as Japanese works by the monk-painter Ryozen (flourished circa 1330–50).
In the 1850s officials from Tofukuji sought funding to repair their temple and, recalling the early internship of the now-distinguished Edo painter Zeshin, approached the artist to sound out his interest in purchasing the Ryozen set, which he had revered as a youth. Zeshin did indeed acquire the paintings. He held and cherished the ensemble until his death. In the early 1900s the ensemble (F1904.295–311) was acquired by Charles Lang Freer, a purchase that deeply impressed the world of Japanese antiquarians and art collectors.
The acquisition of Zeshin’s study adds a fine nineteenth-century Buddhist painting to the Freer collection of Zeshin paintings. It also completes an important historical circle, bringing together not only the original works but also a painting that tells the history, provenance, and appreciation of an important iconographic group.