Butterflies

Tani Bunchō was renowned as an artist and teacher of painting in the Nanga style characterized by idealized Chinese-style landscapes. Although he was the most influential Nanga artist at the time, he explored and practised other painting styles. The butterflies on this fan are meticulously observed but not painted as scientific specimens. Instead, Bunchō has created his own combinations of markings and colour and set the butterflies against a purely decorative metallic background.

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  • Catalogue text

    The Ashmolean’s two Bunchō fans could not be more different in terms of style. The previous one [EAX.5431] is the artist’s transformation of Chinese landscape models, while this fan of butterflies takes its cue from sketches of insects. Though based on nature, the butterflies are not painted as scientific specimens. Each seems to have its own personality in the way its wings or antennae bend. Bunchō has painted a host of characters, from the most delicate and small light pink butterfly to the most intimidating green-striped one. There is a bit of the artist’s own fantasy added here, evident in the architectonic markings on the butterflies wings, some in colours that do not occur in nature. Less natural still is the shining gold and silver background against which the insects with their matted colours stand out. Great care has been taken in the butterflies’ markings and colourings by painting several layers of pigment to get just the right effect. The lines of the feet and bodies are done with delicate calligraphic grace, the same touch as the artist's signature.

    Many artists of the period, beginning with Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795) [These are in the Tokyo National Museum and published in Yamakaw Takeshi, Nanga to shaseiga, Genshoku nihon no bijutsu Vol. 18 (Tokyo: Shōgakkan, 1969), fig. 114.] produced studies of butterflies, such as Masuyama Sessai (1754-1819) [Also in the Tokyo National Museum and published in Honsono Masanobu, Kindai kaiga no reimei: Bunchō Kazan to Yōfūga, Nihon bijutsu zenhū Vol. 25 (Tokyo: Gakushū kenkyūsha, 1979), plates 103-4 and Yoshiaki Shimizu, ed., Japan: the Shaping of Daimyo Culture 185-1868 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), fig. 138 and page 219.] and Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) [This is in the collection of Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music, published in Itabashi Art Museum, Shibata Zeshin ten: bakumatsu meiji no seika kaiga to shikkō no sedai (Tokyo: Itabashi Art Museum, 1980), fig. 39.]. The general atmosphere of objective, scientific study of the natural world that grew out of Neo-Confucian philosophy was spearheaded by those daimyo with access to Western and Chinese books on botany and herbal medicine. Bunchō himself produced sketches of fish, cats and birds [Banchō’s sketchbook Gagaku saikaganzukō is published in Hosono, 220.], and the printed book Shazanrō gahon has illustrations of insects [A copy of this book is in the British Museum.]. Bunchō began to experiment with Maruyama and Shijō school techniques when fellow-artist Watanabe Nangaku (1767-1813) came to Edo for three years in about 1808, and possibly entered Bunchō’s studio [Hosono. 144.]. Bunchō’s signature on Butterflies most closely resembles those on works done between 1808 and 1812.

    Our image of Bunchō is probably very different from how he was viewed by his contemporaries since we must rely on his extant works. Butterflies gives us insight into a type of painting Bunchō was known to have done, but with few remaining examples.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Glossary of terms

Nanga

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 11 on pp. 66-67, pp. 39 & 101, illus. pp. 66-67

Hillier, J., The Harari Collection of Japanese Paintings and Drawings, copyright owned by Michael Harari, 3 vols (London: Lund Humphries, 1973), no. 304 on p. 538, illus. p. 539 fig. 304

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