This pair of screens belongs to a genre of lyrical paintings of flowers, grasses, and other plants that flourished around the middle of the seventeenth century and became a speciality of the Sotatsu studio. The use of an abstract gold ground, a subtle and rather complex composition of clusters of flowers, and the puddling of ink (especially noticeable here in the leaves) was initiated by Tawaraya Sotatsu, the founder of the Rimpa school, who was active from 1600 until 1642. Painting ateliers led by Sotatsu's followers continued through the end of the seventeenth century. On the whole, the identity of these followers remains a mystery; most did not sign their work but simply impressed one of Sotatsu's seals--especially the round, red Inen seal that appears on the example shown here--on their paintings. Only two followers of Sotatsu, Tawaraya Sosetsu (active ca. 1640-50) and Kitagawa Sosetsu (active in the 1680s) are known by name. In 1642 Tawaraya Sosetsu became the official painter-in-residence for the Maeda family, the daimyo of Kaga province (Ishikawa prefecture) on the Japan sea, north of Kyoto. A workshop was established in Kanazawa, the site of the Maeda castle. The screens illustrated here are likely to have come from one of the Sosetsu studios in the third quarter of the seventeenth century.
These paintings share with other Sosetsu screens a loose progression from early spring on the far right side of the right screen (fern fronds and young pines, for example) to summer (iris and hollyhocks), followed by fall (chrysanthemums) and early winter (narcissus) on the left screen. The inclusion of vegetables here--eggplants and squash--is rather unusual. As on other examples from the Sosetsu atelier, certain plants are paired or intertwined. Typically, such favorite pairings include wisteria and yellow roses (on the far right of the right screen), miscanthus grasses and bush clover (on the right side of the left screen), and narcissus and red berries at the far left. Typically, also, the artist composes in such a way that the top of the screen functions as an element of the composition: the wisteria seems to be suspended from the frame on the right.
The screens are abstract and decorative in a way that is uniquely Japanese, but there is at the same time a keen sense of naturalism not only in the attention to accurate detail, but in the profusion of vegetation, some of it rather novel. Poppies, for example, were first made popular by Sotatsu's followers. An interest in the natural sciences was shared by many artists and patrons in the 17th century. Fuelled by widely circulated copies of Chinese illustrated herbals and Dutch botanical studies, the Japanese at this time began to publish books on medicinal plants, to establish herbaria, to appreciate gardening and flower arranging. The vogue for botanical studies cut across class lines. Many daimyo, including Maeda Tsunanori (1643-1724) of Kaga province, who was himself an amateur botanist, had in their employ well-known botanists and assembled great libraries on the natural sciences.
On the right screen are flowers and plants of spring and summer: first panel: wisteria; yamabuki or yellow Japanese rose (Kerria japonica); young pines; horsetails (Equisetum arvense); second and third panels: tree peony (Paeonia suffruiticosa); dandelion (Taraxacum); fourth panel: pinks (Dianthus); opium poppies (Papavar somniferum); clematis species (Clematis); fifth panel: hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla); hollyhocks (Alcea rosea); Japanese iris (Iris enseta spontanea); squash; rice (Oryza sativa); sixth panel: eggplant (Solanum melongena); water plantain (Sagittaria agineshi).
On the left screen are the flowers and grasses of autumn and winter: first and second panels: miscanthus grasses (susuki in Japanese) and bush clover (Lespedezas); yellow ominaeshi (Patrinia scabiosaefolia); thistle (Circium); bellflowers (Campanula); Chinese lantern (Physalis alkikengi) fifth and sixth panels: chrysanthemums; daffodil (Narcissus); Smilax; Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum); dwarf bamboo
Previously sold in these Rooms March 29, 1990, lot 170