Reflecting Jakuchū’s virtuosity and experimentalism as a painter, Peonies and Butterflies is the earliest of the 30 scrolls constituting the Colorful Realm set, which would undergo a long evolution over the course of a decade. The painting combines two subjects that are richly symbolic in East Asian pictorial traditions. On the one hand, the peony flower was likened to both feminine beauty and prosperity, and enjoyed great popularity as an auspicious painting subject.1 While the butterfly could also serve as an auspicious symbol, its popularity was equally attributable to its appearance in one of the most famous parables in early Chinese thought: Zhuangzi’s dream of a butterfly. According to this parable, the legendary sage Zhuangzi dreams that he is a carefree yellow butterfly flitting about. Upon awakening, however, “he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.”2 Paintings of butterflies inevitably invoked the oneiric setting and queried selfhood of the Zhuangzi anecdote in most East Asian contexts and particularly in Jakuchū’s circle of erudite Sinophile monks, scholars, and merchants. At the visual register, Peonies and Butterflies evokes both an opulent and idyllic appeal. Yet the painting also suggests the uncertainty of a just-awoken dreamer who momentarily confuses reverie with reality.
The early date of Peonies and Butterflies is indicated by the calligraphic style of the signature and seals, which are similar to a set of early paintings made by the artist between 1755 and 1757. Since the earliest dated work in Colorful Realm is from the spring of 1758 (Plum Blossoms and Small Birds), Peonies and Butterflies was quite likely created sometime during 1757. It is unclear at this point whether or not Jakuchū conceived of it as a single scroll or part of a larger series. The conservative composition with ample unpainted areas would give way to the more characteristic allover compositions of later scrolls.
Peonies and Butterflies reflects Jakuchū’s close study of paintings of the Shen Nanpin school, named after the Chinese painter who resided in Nagasaki from 1731 to 1733 and disseminated a technically meticulous and verisimilar form of continental bird-and-flower painting. Among the elements closely associated with Shen Nanpin and his followers is the practice of depicting peony petals with ragged, scalloped edges outlined in shell-white pigment (gofun), making them appear as if they are slowly writhing. Other aspects of the painting may result from consultation of the collections of natural historians in Jakuchū’s circles: for instance, the butterflies are depicted with stiff, outspread wings viewed as if from directly above. A similar taxidermic approach is found in many other scrolls throughout Colorful Realm.
At the same time, careful study of the painting’s pigmentation points to Jakuchū’s remarkable distillation and intensification of traditional East Asian coloration techniques. Different grades of opacity and transparency are achieved in the butterflies, flowers, stems, and leaves by varying the use of mineral and vegetal pigments, occasionally layering them one on top of another and adding a sublayer of color on the back of the silk. This complex stratigraphy of colors results in a convincing imbrication of the motifs in their surroundings. Indeed, when Jakuchū’s cultural and spiritual mentor Daiten (1719–1801) encountered the painting in 1760, he titled it “Beautiful Mist and Fragrant Wind” (Enka kōfū), suggesting that the real subject here was not the peonies and butterflies, but the conceptual atmosphere that enveloped them, the invisible ether within which they swayed and glided.
1. The peony became the preferred garden flower of the imperial and aristocratic elite during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907) and at the court of Emperor Xuanzong in particular; in East Asian literary traditions Li Bai’s verse likening the beauty of Xuanzong’s favorite consort Yang Guifei (719–756) to a peony cemented the flower’s association with feminine beauty. Meanwhile, its full and gorgeous appearance lent itself to uncomplicated associations with affluence and good fortune. As an auspicious motif, the peony became the most pictorialized flower in East Asia. Differentiating between peony species (some 25 to 40) is difficult; many have compound, deeply lobed leaves. Large, fragrant flowers bloom in late spring and early summer.
2. See the translation by Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (New York, 1964).