Early scrolls in the Colorful Realm set, such as Mandarin Ducks in Snow, represent variations on subjects and compositions that the artist had been developing for several years. In 1756/1757, he painted Blossoming Plum and Mandarin Ducks in Snow, a similar work that was formerly in the collection of Higashi Honganji, a temple in Kyoto.1 The more abbreviated Mandarin Ducks amid Snow-Covered Reeds in the Joe and Etsuko Price Collection is believed to date between 1755 and 1757.2 The Colorful Realm version dates to the second month of 1759. Here, the mandarin ducks are depicted with frozen, sharply cascading willow branches and a blossoming camellia bush.3 Three colorful songbirds—identified from left to right as a narcissus flycatcher (kibitaki), a bird related to the eastern turtledove (kijibato), and another bird related to the Eurasian bullfinch (akauso)—perch in the willow and add further color to an otherwise glaciated, wintry setting.
Because mandarin ducks were believed to mate for life, they served as symbols of marital harmony and became popular subjects for painting. Jakuchū’s version conveys the mannerism of form and virtuosity of execution that distinguish the painter’s works from many other paintings made under the spell of the Shen Nanpin school in mid-18th-century Kyoto. The rocky perch upon which the drake poses is attenuated to the point of abstraction, and the willow tree serves as a strange, stalactital backdrop in which individual branches weave in front of and behind one another rather implausibly. The birds do not interact, and their forms appear to be derived from picture manuals or natural-history collections.
Despite the seeming independence of its motifs, however, the composition is unified by the treatment of the sky, which is given depth through a rather remarkable technique. The snow is depicted through the spattering of shell-white pigment (gofun) on both the front and back of the silk, conveying the impression of snow falling at different depths of field. In one case the verso pigmentation can be seen clearly through the body of a bird. The shell white is also carefully layered to indicate those areas where the snow has accumulated.
Although color is here relatively minimal in relation to other scrolls in the Colorful Realm set, where it is found, it has been applied with great intensity and sophistication. A close-up of the male duck reveals the pains taken by the painter to render the minutiae of the mandarin drake’s feather pattern: the touches of malachite green (rokushō) and other pigments that he incorporated are nearly invisible to the naked eye.
1 See the entry on this painting in Money L. Hickman and Satō Yasuhiro, The Paintings of Jakuchū (New York, 1989), 104–105.
2 This work has most recently been published in Tsuji Nobuo et al., Japanese Masterworks from the Price Collection (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, 2007), pl. 56.
3 The plant depicted is Camellia sasanqua (J. sazanka), which was traditionally not acknowledged as a species of camellia in Japan, but popular nevertheless as a pictorial motif.