Itô Jakuchû was an Eccentric painter of the mid-Edo period. Though many of his paintings concern traditionally Japanese subjects, particularly chickens and other birds, his painting style and methods were heavily influenced by Western painting. Many of his otherwise traditional works display a great degree of experimentation with perspective, and with other very modern stylistic elements.
Though compared to Soga Shohaku and other exemplars of the mid-Edo period eccentric painters, Jakuchû is said to have been very calm, restrained, and professional. He held strong ties to Zen Buddhist ideals, and was considered a lay brother (koji); but he was also keenly aware of his role within a Kyoto society that was becoming increasingly commercial.
Itô Jakuchû was the eldest son of Itô Genzaemon, a Kyoto grocer whose shop, called Masuya, lay in the center of downtown, in the Nishiki food district. Jakuchû ran the shop from the time of his father's death in 1739 until 1755, when he turned it over to one of his brothers.
His training in paintings was mostly derived from inspirations from nature and from examining Chinese paintings at Zen temples. Some sources indicate that he may have studied with Ôoka Shunboku, an Osaka-based artist known for his bird and flower paintings. Though a number of Jakuchû's paintings depict exotic or fantastic creatures, such as tigers and phoenixes, it is evident from the detail and lifelike appearance of his paintings of chickens and other animals that he based his work on actual observation.
Jakuchû built a two-story studio on the west bank of the Kamo River in his late thirties. He called it Shin'en-kan (心遠館, Villa of the Detached Heart [or Mind]), after a phrase from a poem by the ancient Chinese poet Tao Qian. It was around this time that Jakuchû befriended Daiten Kenjô, a Rinzai monk who would later become abbot of the Kyoto temple Shôkoku-ji. Through this friendship Jakuchû gained access to the temple's large collection of Chinese and Japanese paintings, and gained introduction to new social and artistic circles. It is thought that Daiten may have been the one to first conceive of the name "Jakuchû," taken from the Tao Te Ching and meaning "like the void."
Well-known and well-reputed in the Kyoto art community, Jakuchû received many commissions for screen paintings, and was at one time featured above a number of other notable artists in the Record of Heian Notables (平安人物誌, Heian jinbutsu-shi). In addition to personal commissions, Jakuchû was also commissioned to paint panels or screens for many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines across Japan, including the very famous and important Rokuon-ji (the monastery which includes the Ginkaku-ji Silver Pavilion on its grounds).
Despite his commercial successes, however, Jakuchû can definitely be said to have lived the life of a literati (bunjin). He was friends with many notable bunjin, went on journeys with them, and was influenced by their artistic styles. His own degree of experimentation was a result of a combination of this bunjin influence, that of Western art, and his own personal creative drive. In addition to his experiments with Western materials and perspective, Jakuchû also employed on occasion a method called taku hanga (拓版画, "rubbing prints"). This method used woodblocks to resemble a Chinese technique of ink rubbings of inscribed stone slabs, and was employed by Jakuchû in a number of works, including a scroll entitled "Impromptu Pleasures Afloat" (乗興舟, Jôkyôshû), depicting a journey down the Yodo River.
Despite his individualism and involvement in the scholarly and artistic community of Kyoto, Jakuchû was always strongly religious, and retired towards the end of his life to Sekihô-ji, a Manpuku-ji branch temple on the southern outskirts of Kyoto. There, he gathered a number of followers, and continued to paint until his death at the age of eighty-five.
Most of Jakuchû's works were in the form of hanging scrolls, painted in a combination of Western and traditional Japanese methods and styles. A very common theme among his work is birds, in particular chickens and roosters, though several of his more famous paintings depict cockatoos, parrots, and phoenixes.
One of his most ambitious endeavors, and therefore most famous works, is known as the "Pictures of the Colorful Realm of Living Beings" (動植綵絵, Dôshoku sai-e). Begun around 1757 and not finished until 1765, the Pictures are a set of twenty-seven hanging scrolls created as a personal offering to the Shôkoku-ji temple. They depict a number of animal subjects in monumental scale and with an according degree of detail.
Another of his famous pieces, "Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants" (seen above), is arguably one of the most modern-looking pieces to come out of Japan during this period. The piece, one of a pair of six-fold screens, depicts a white elephant and a number of other animals in a garden. What makes it unique, eccentric and modern is the division of the entire piece into a grid of squares roughly a centimeter on each side. Each square was colored individually, resulting in an aggregate image that is, essentially, pixelated. It is part of the Price Collection of the Shin'enkan Foundation in Los Angeles.
Jakuchû also experimented with a number of forms of printing, most of them using woodblocks. But occasionally he would use stencils or other methods to produce different effects.
- Rosenfield, John M. (1999). Extraordinary Persons: Works by Eccentric, Nonconformist Japanese Artists of the Early Modern Era (1580-1868) in the Collection of Kimiko and John Powers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Art Museums.