In the artistically rich Edo period (1600-1868), Japanese painters of the Maruyama school developed a new style which emphasized precise representation of natural phenomena. In doing so, they were influenced by two distinct foreign sources. From China, they admired the careful sketches and woodblock printed books of botanical specimens used in herbal pharmacology. At the same time, they also took great interest in the vivid realism of Dutch copper-plate engravings which illustrated human, animal and ornithological subjects using Western chiaroscuro and foreshortening. Under the leadership of Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), artists combined careful, near scientific studies from life with decorative compositional formulas, resulting in works of delicate naturalism and pleasing visual effects. This new style had a broad appeal and it quickly overshadowed more traditional schools, becoming one of the leading forms of artistic expression during Japan's pre-modern era.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently acquired a magnificent diptych by Nagasawa Roshu (1767-1847), a pupil of Maruyama Okyo. In this pairing of a regal peacock with a barrage of smaller birds, Roshu created a virtual cornucopia of botanical specimens including blossoming cherry, magnolia, wild rose, lilies, pinks, violets, foxtail ferns and even a lowly dandelion. The plants function as a setting for Roshu's closely observed birds. Typical of the Maruyama school, Roshu took great pains to depict his winged subjects in a variety of activities and poses. By painting titmice in flight and sparrows busily scavenging, Roshu captured the particular manner in which each species moves.
Each of Roshu's birds are meticulously delineated, with every feather and every subtle color change carefully noted. A hallmark of Maruyama school artists is the use of the "toneless" method of painting in which pigments are applied directly to the paper or silk without the benefit of outlines. This difficult technique, related to ink-painting in the degree of skill necessary to render form without the slightest hesitation, was favored because it gave flowers and leaves a believable lightness and delicacy.
This pair of paintings by Roshu is a stellar example of Maruyama school painting, incorporating all of these stylistic qualities in a large scale, full composition. The works of Nagasawa Roshu, a recognized master of the school, are extremely rare. He was the adopted son of the famous and eccentric painter Nagasawa Rosetsu whose humorous masterpiece depicting Chinese children climbing on a massive elephant was recently exhibited at the Institute. The hypercritical Rosetsu chose Roshu to be both his familial and artistic heir precisely because of Roshu's brilliant mastery of the brush.
Roshu's diptych displays both his debt to his teacher Okyo and to his adopted father Rosetsu. The refined, precise approach clearly suggests Roshu's fidelity to Okyo's fastidious style. On the other hand, certain other elements reveal the unorthodox approach of Rosetsu. Rosetsu was fond of juxtaposing subjects of vastly different scale, such as a white puppy and a massive black ox. This playful approach is echoed in Roshu's juxtaposition of a tiny finch with the imposing peacock. Rosetsu also had the uncanny ability to imbue his birds and animals with believable personalities. In Roshu's diptych, the white-hooded blackbird on the left impudently mocks the peacock's pose, playfully poking fun at the bird's haughty beauty.
Matthew Welch is associate curator of Asian art.