Collections: Asian Art: Blind Men Appraising an Elephant

  • 1st Floor
    Arts of Africa, Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden
  • 2nd Floor
    Arts of Asia and the Islamic World
  • 3rd Floor
    Egyptian Art, European Paintings
  • 4th Floor
    Contemporary Art, Decorative Arts, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art
  • 5th Floor
    Luce Center for American Art

On View: Hairpin

Ivory’s value results from its scarcity, as well as its association with the elephant, a symbol of power and strength. Ivory bracelets...

Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

Hiroshige's 118 woodblock landscape and genre scenes of mid-nineteenth-century Tokyo, is one of the greatest achievements of Japanese art.

    On View: Snuff Spoon/ Hair Ornament

    Ivory’s value results from its scarcity, as well as its association with the elephant, a symbol of power and strength. Ivory bracelets...

     

    Want to add this object to a set? Please join the Posse, or log in.

    close

    1993.57_IMLS_SL2.jpg 1993.57_bw_IMLS.jpg 1993.57_detail_bw_IMLS.jpg

    Blind Men Appraising an Elephant

    • Artist: Ohara Donshu, Japanese, died 1857
    • Medium: Ink and colors on paper
    • Place Made: Japan
    • Dates: early 19th century
    • Period: Edo Period
    • Dimensions: Overall: 92 x 46 1/2 in. (233.7 x 118.1 cm) Image: 67 x 37 1/2 in. (170.2 x 95.3 cm)  (show scale)
    • Collections:Asian Art
    • Museum Location: This item is not on view
    • Accession Number: 1993.57
    • Credit Line: Gift of the Asian Art Council, Mr. and Mrs. W. G. Clark, Georgia and Michael de Havenon, Mr. and Mrs. Greg Fitz-Gerald, Dr. and Mrs. George Liberman, and Khalil Rizk; Frank L. Babbott Fund
    • Rights Statement: No known copyright restrictions
    • Caption: Ohara Donshu (Japanese, died 1857). Blind Men Appraising an Elephant, early 19th century. Ink and colors on paper, Overall: 92 x 46 1/2 in. (233.7 x 118.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Asian Art Council, Mr. and Mrs. W. G. Clark, Georgia and Michael de Havenon, Mr. and Mrs. Greg Fitz-Gerald, Dr. and Mrs. George Liberman, and Khalil Rizk; Frank L. Babbott Fund , 1993.57
    • Image: overall, 1993.57_IMLS_SL2.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
    • Catalogue Description: The painting represents a large, benevolent, white elephant being examined by a group of figures, many of them blind. The blind men acquaint themselves with the elephant by touch, while those who can see either laugh at the event taking place in front of them or quietly queue up to take their turn to inspect it. The scene, known from sources throughout Asian literature and painting, is a metaphor for the human condition: each individual presumes to know the nature of the universe through his extremely limited personal experience of it. The subject is found in "Sketchbooks of Hoksai" ("Hokusai Manga") (1814-19), where a hulking elephant is shown in profile surrounded by miniscule blind figures. One blind man touches the trunk and exclaims: "Why an elephant is like a snake." Another, its tail: It's like a rope." Another, it's flank: "Like a wall." Expressive figures of blind men are frequently employed in later Japanese Buddhist painting to represent the vulnerable and precarious condition of those who are spiritually blind. The subject of blind men examining an elephant is found as early as the fifth century A. D. in the "Hitopadesha," the Indian version of Aesop's fables. The composition in the Donshu work closely follows an earlier Chinese precedent called "Washing the White Elephant," which we know from several late Ming examples, such as a painting by Ding Yungpeng of 1604, representing the annual event in China when the imperial court elephants were ritually cleaned (Hyland, "Deities, Emperors, Ladies and Literati; Figure Painting of the Ming and Qing Dynasties," Birmingham Museum of Art, 1987: Alabama, cat. # 20). Hokusai also treated this subject in Vol. 13 of the "Hokusai Manga" (c. 1849-50) (Hillier, "Hokusai Manga," fig # 40) although in Hokusai's version, the elephant is seen in profile. A more contemporary inspiration for later Japanese artists may have been the actual arrival in Japan, in 1978, of a white elephant brought from Siam, an event that appears to have generated a great deal of excitement. Ohara Donshu is a Kyoto painter of the Shijo School known for his wide variety of subjects and varied techniques. He is not, however, a typical Shijo painter. His work is sufficiently rare. Three paintings in the Ogino Collection, Kurashiki, Japan have been published: "A Fan Painting of Immortal Kinko" (The Suntory Museum Catalogue) Lady Playing a Zither; and the Chinese Literati landcape subject Lan-ting Pavilion. Donshu's abbreviated style can be associated with the haiga genre which is know for a sketchy, spontaneous technique often associated with haiku poems. Jack Hillier praises Donshu's work as a haiku illustrator and cites three additional paintings in Japanese Collection (Yabumoto and Richard Lane). Even more impressive than the published examples, the monumental scale of this painting is enhanced by the artist's detailed depiction of the elephant in dry brushwork and the animated figures surrounding it. He blurs the dry color applied to several patches of the figures' costumes, rather than laying it down in flat tints. The background is deliberately worked in serene gray washes. The painting came with an original wooden box on which the title "Elephant" and the artist's name "Donshu-hitsu (painted by)" were written. Condition: Good. There is scattered foxing throughout the paper and the green pigmants (probably of copper origin) have stained the paper where in contact. (See Record of Restoration File).
    • Record Completeness: Good (78%)
    advanced 107,035 records currently online.

    Separate each tag with a space: painting portrait.

    Or join words together in one tag by using double quotes: "Brooklyn Museum."


    Recent Comments
    22:47 09/9/2010
    The story in all likelihood originated in India. In addition to the Hitopadesa, it also is contained in the sacred Buddhist scriptures in the Pali language. Like so much else including Mahayana Buddhism, it probably spread northwest then along the Silk Route west through Central Asia & east to China, then Japan. It also spread to Southeast Asia, probably with the spread of the Pali Canon of Theravada/Buddhism to these countries.
    By Doug White
    11:28 02/26/2011
    And the blind men came, they who have had no knowledge of what an elephant was…And they were led to the elephant and were allowed to feel the elephant…And one who had touched one of the feet of the elephant declared: “An elephant is a pillar in the palace…” And one who had touched an ear of the elephant proclaimed: “An elephant is a huge fan used in the halls of a king…”And one who had touched a tusk uttered: “An elephant is a sword, a saber…” And one who had touched the tail said: “An elephant is a rope twisted for special use…” And so each blind person described the elephant…each person defined the elephant…and so it is with us, how truth is perceived and described…each sees truth from one’s perspective, from one’s narrow conditioning…as the blind men perceived the elephant…



    Please review the comment guidelines before posting.

    Before you comment...

    We get a lot of comments, so before you post yours, check to see if your issue is addressed by one of the questions below. Click on a question to see our answer:

    Why are some objects not on view?

    The Museum’s permanent collections are very large and only a fraction of these can be on exhibition at any given time. Sometimes works are lent to other museums for special exhibitions; sometimes they are in the conservation laboratory for study or maintenance. Certain types of objects, such as watercolors, textiles, and photographs, are sensitive to light and begin to fade if they are exposed for too long, so their exhibition time is limited. Finally, as large as the Museum is, there is not enough room to display everything in the collections. In order to present our best works, collections are rotated periodically.

    How do I find out how much an object in the Brooklyn Museum collections is worth?

    The Museum does not disclose the monetary values of objects in its collections.

    Can you tell me the value of an artwork that I own?

    The Museum does not provide monetary appraisals. To determine the value of an object or to find an appraiser, you may contact the Art Dealers Association of America or the American Society of Appraisers.

    I own a similar object. Can you tell me more about it?

    Please submit via e-mail a photograph of the object you own and as much information about it as you can, and we will provide any additional information we are able to find. Please note that research in our files is a lengthy process, and you may not have a response for some time.

    How would I go about lending or gifting a work to the Museum or seeing if the Museum is interested in purchasing a work that I own?

    Please submit via e-mail a photograph of the object you would like us to consider, as well as all of the information you have about it, and your offer will be forwarded to the appropriate curator. The Brooklyn Museum collections are very rich, and we have many works that are not currently on exhibition; because of this, and because storage space is limited, we are very selective about adding works. However, the collection has become what it is today through the generosity of the public, and we continue to be grateful for this generosity, which can still lead to exciting new acquisitions.

    How can I get a reproduction of a work in your collection?

    Please see the Museum’s information on Image Services.

    How can I show my work to someone at the Museum or be considered for an exhibition?

    Please see the Museum’s Artist Submission Guidelines.

    Why do many objects not have photographs and/or complete descriptions?

    The Museum's collection is very large, and we are constantly in the process of adding photographs and descriptions to works that do not currently have them, or replacing photographs that have deteriorated beyond use and descriptions that are minimal or out of date. This is a long and expensive process that takes time.

    How can I find a conservator or get advice on how to treat my artwork?

    Please visit the American Institute for Conservation, which has a feature on how to find a conservator.

    I have a comment or question which is not included in this list.

    Join the posse or log in to work with our collections. Your tags, comments and favorites will display with your attribution.