The woman who would come to take on the art-name Gyokuran was named Machi by her family. Her mother Yuri and grandmother Kaji were also renowned waka poets; her father was a shogunal retainer by the name of Tokuyama. When her father was recalled to Edo, she remained behind in Kyoto with her mother.
Machi began studying painting at a young age under Yanagisawa Kien, a now-famous literati painter, and regular customer at her mother's teahouse. He may have been the one to give her the name Gyokuran, and likely introduced Gyokuran and Ike no Taiga, who was also among Kien's students. The two were married sometime between 1746 and 1752, and lived together in a house near Yasaka Shrine, though it is unclear if the couple ever bothered to go through the proper legal procedures. As literati painters, though aspiring to a certain amateur ideal of pure artistic expression, and distinction from commercial, professional painters, Taiga and Gyokuran made their living by selling paintings and other works.
Gyokuran studied painting under her husband, and taught him poetry; the two also studied poetry with the courtier Reizei Tamemura, and were intimately involved in literati circles in the region. Gyokuran would maintain friendships with Kimura Kenkadô, Kô Fuyô, Aoki Shukuya, Fukuhara Gogaku and others even after her husband's death.
In painting, she developed a style strongly influenced by Taiga's, but still distinctively her own. Her style has been described as "more whimsical and her brushwork unconventional, with exaggerated outlines, unusual texture strokes, and eccentric geometric forms."
Gyokuran's mother Yuri died in 1764, and Gyokuran took over operations of the Matsuya teahouse, though she and Taiga continued to sell paintings and works of calligraphy for a living. He died in 1776; she in 1784.
- Berry, Paul and Michiyo Morioka (eds.) Literati Modern: Bunjinga from Late Edo to Twentieth-Century Japan. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2008. pp270-271.
- Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
- Yuri was Kaji's adopted, not biological, daughter.
- Literati Modern. p270.