A school of trout or sweet smelt (ayu), hyper-realistically rendered, swims through curving currents of semitransparent water. In the distance, a waterfall and adjacent trees are depicted with light wash. The contrast of sharp detail in the foreground and softened landscape features behind it is characteristic of at least several dozen ayu paintings done by Koizumi Ayaru between 1810 and 1850. His reputation is as a skilled painter of fish, but he also produced numerous portraits and paintings of Chinese beauties, varied religious iconography, and landscapes.
The fact that multiple versions of this painting that have been found in the vicinity of Ayaru’s home region of Tochigi, to the northeast of Edo (Tokyo), and in the distant Omi region, just east of Kyoto, suggests an interesting story of the confluence of art and commerce in late Edo-period Japan. Ayu was a cherished local product of both Tochigi and Omi, which likely led to the circulation of Ayaru’s paintings on the trade routes of the Omi merchants.
Born in Mashiko, to the northeast of Edo, Ayaru was the second son of the Kimura family and his birth name was Katsuaki. Both the Kimura family and the Koizumi family, into which Ayaru was later adopted to continue the Koizumi family line, were Shinto shrine functionaries. At the age of eleven, Ayaru moved to Tochigi and apprenticed under the wealthy merchant and painter Shimazaki Unpō (1731–1805; birth name: Sukeyoshi), himself a specialist in paintings of Chinese beauties and fish.
Unpō led the third generation of a wealthy sake brewery founded by Shimazaki Ribee in Omi province. As a young man, Unpō had studied under Takada Keihō (1674–1755), the most prominent regional painter of his generation and famous as the teacher of Soga Shohaku (1730–1781) and Tsukioka Settei (1710–1786), who both developed substantial careers in the Kyoto-Osaka region. Unpō’s manifest talent qualified him to balance the dual roles of professional painter and principal of the brewery business. Throughout his career, he extended the family business to eastern Japan and the Tochigi region. It was during his frequent periods of residence in that region that he trained Ayaru.
Ayaru rose steadily in positions of responsibility, both in the Shinto shrine network and as a painter in demand. Eventually, he was designated as the official painter of the Kurobane domain near Tochigi. Ayaru’s connections and influence in eastern Japan extended well beyond his ayu paintings. Considerable documentation attests to his interactions with notable Edo painters including Tani Bunchō (1763–1841) and Takaki Aigai (1796–1843).