This distinguished painting represents the latter half of a twenty-meter-long handscroll that was split into fragments after World War II. Its ebullient and playful style may represent the zenith of the Kōetsu-Sōtatsu collaboration. Twenty-eight autumn poems, quotations from the circa 1205–10 Shinkokin wakashū (New Anthology of Poems Past and Present), are combined in calculated rhythm with deer depicted in multiple poses and activities. A close examination of this work suggests a collaboration in real time. Rather than Sōtatsu preparing a painting and then delivering it to Kōetsu to inscribe at his convenience, there are multiple signs that painter and calligrapher worked simultaneously on this project. These signs include probable adjustments in compositional placement, additions of figures, gold or silver added over already-inscribed poems, and other last-minute harmonizing of words and images. Deer and mist alternate from the distinct foreground to the vaguely discernable distance to give a sense of the passage of time.
In the early twentieth century, the complete scroll was in the collection of Masuda Takashi (1867–1940), one of Japan’s foremost collectors and a friend of Charles Lang Freer. In his letters to Freer (dated 1914 and 1916), Masuda stated that the Deer Scroll was a Sōtatsu-Kōetsu collaboration, countering the then-prevalent assumption that the work was solely by the calligrapher.
Poem Scroll with Design of Deer
Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act. ca. 1600–40)
Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637), calligrapher
Ink, gold, and silver on paper
Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Donald E. Frederick, 51.127