In the foreground a single deer picks its way across a stream that rushes down from the mountains above. In this unpopulated scene, protected to front and rear by large rocks and mountains, the stag yet seems to peer alertly, watchful for those unaware of the deer’s privileged position in Japan due to its association with Buddhism. The red-tinged leaves of the background trees mark the season as autumn, as does the deer itself, perhaps because after a summer’s feeding its flesh was then at its tasty best.
A pleasing variety of techniques was used to create the forms, which range from the highly-detailed and naturalistic deer to the angular, more abstract mountains and from the staccato pointillistic treatment of the tree foliage to the ink-wash peaks in the distance. The mountain forms are most interesting, with the hard-edged facets preserving the strong and forceful movement of the brush as it carved out the adamantine forms from nothingness.
Matsumura Toyoaki (1752-1811), called Goshun, was born in the Shijo district of Kyoto. By the early Edo period the head of the family had moved from Matsumura in Gifu to Edo, where he worked in the Kinza. This was the government mint founded to buy metal and to cast and authenticate coins. Positions in the Kinza were usually hereditary, and the young Matsumura Toyoaki entered the Kyoto Kinza in 1769, placed in charge of minting coins. Goshun’s comfortable circumstances as a child meant that he was introduced to literature, music, and art early on. He first studied painting under Suigetsu, a painter of figures and flower-and-bird pictures but about the time he was nineteen or twenty he began study with Yosa Buson (1716-1783), then recognized with Okyo as one of the leading contemporary artists in Kyoto. When Goshun was twenty-nine his wife died in an accident and some months later his father also died, events that affected his life directly and immediately. In autumn of that same year he moved to Osaka and began to call himself Goshun, a sinified name joining the common Chinese surname of Wu with a given name meaning “spring.” About the same time Goshun left his position in the Kinza and thenceforth devoted himself entirely to painting.
When Buson became gravely ill in 1783, Goshun rushed to Kyoto and joined Ki Baitei (1734-1810) in caring for the master. Goshun also made the funeral arrangements and helped the family adjust to the new circumstances. Some years later, in 1787, Goshun visited Maruyama Okyo and is said to have lived for some time with that master painter. In 1789 Goshun moved from Ikeda to Kyoto, gradually created his own style and, after the death of Okyo in 1795, established the Shijo school—named after his address in Kyoto—which became one of the most influential of all schools during the 19th century.
The present painting is not dated by inscription but its style suggests it is a fairly early painting, done soon after he adopted the name Goshun in 1781 and while he was living in Ikeda. Here the trees reflect the influence of Buson as does the formation of the land masses. In Goshun’s later paintings of deer the forms are softened somewhat, losing the expressive contrast apparent here between the organic and inorganic elements.