As witnessed in Lotus Pond and Fish, the composition of Pond and Insects appears to be a composite of several different viewing perspectives. Hanging gourds frame this view of a pond teeming with insects and reptiles, but the gourds, the pond surface, and the ground plane each presuppose dissimilar vantage points. Although this arrangement should result in an impossible image, the painting manages to unify its constituent elements into a substantially harmonious picture, even if fanciful and dreamlike in effect.
This painting is the only one in Colorful Realm that focuses on insects as its main motif: 67 insect species are depicted. One snake, several lizards, and numerous tadpoles and frogs are also included, for reptiles and insects were not meaningfully differentiated in operative taxonomies of the Edo period. Some of the motifs are recycled from earlier paintings: the large yellow butterfly in the upper-left quadrant, for instance, made an earlier appearance in Peonies and Butterflies. Indeed, recycling may have conditioned a certain stiffness in the depiction of the creatures, as earlier commentators have noted; this constraint is compounded by the curious repetition of poses for the frogs and tadpoles.
The inanimate representation of animate motifs found here, however, may be linked not only to the emergence of natural history as a field of knowledge and practice in Edo-period Japan, but more specifically to the texts and collections of amateur natural historians in Jakuchū’s orbit. Japanese natural history began as a subfield of Chinese medicine, particularly the pharmacological properties of substances in nature. Called the study of fundamental herbs (honzōgaku), it had evolved into a field of knowledge more akin to European natural history by the 18th century.1 Under its influence many members of elite groups and wealthy merchants formed collections and shared their findings in cultural salons. Some prominent collections were introduced to a broader public through woodblock-printed texts. Among 18th-century painters, Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) was the figure whose oeuvre most resonated with the natural-history movement and his sketches of insects from life, preserved in an album in the Tokyo National Museum, bear close resemblance to the taxonomic depictions of honzōgaku pictorialism.
Jakuchū was not uninfluenced by this trend, and the collections of naturalists such as Kimura Kenkadō (1736–1802) exposed the artist to a far greater range of specimens than his own habitat allowed. In the case of Pond and Insects, however, Jakuchū’s impetus derives equally from Chinese grass-and-insect paintings (C. caochong tu, J. sōchū zu) that had made their way to Japan in large numbers from the southern Biling region.2 By local professional painters, these works often bore auspicious connotations and accrued considerable authority as models for natural motifs in Japan.
Jakuchū applied indigo to the back of the silk ground to establish a subtle aqueous tone to the pond surface and perhaps to create a nocturnal setting. Notably, he also used ochre-yellow pigment (ōdo) to selectively brighten several of the gourds, such as the one, near the middle of the right edge, enwrapped by a snake. Despite the stiffness of individual creatures, the overall effect of Pond and Insects is one of quiet, teeming movement among not only insects and reptiles but also gourds, vines, and tendrils. Some of the gourds, such as the example in the lower-left corner, are anthropomorphized.
1 For a highly informative study of Edo-period honzōgaku, see Federico Marconi, “The Nature of Names: The Development of Natural History in Japan, 1600–1900” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2007). I would like to thank the author for kindly making the thesis available to me.
2 Roderick Whitfield, Fascination of Nature: Insects and Plants in Chinese Painting and Ceramics of the Yuan Dynasty (Seoul, 1993).