Itō Jakuchū. Greengrocer, Zen Buddhist koji & eccentric painter.

During the mid-Edo period of 1603-1867, Japan sealed itself off from the world outside and was ruled by a feudal military shogunate of samurai. The Tokugawa. The shoganate forged a stronghold over the 300 regional daimyō, feudal lords with vast hereditary land holdings. This made for 250 years of stability, a time of economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policy, a happy populace and peace. This led to the rise of an affluent middle class and the flowering of several divergent schools of painting.

Born in 1716, a Kyoto greengrocer’s son named Jakuchū (伊藤 若冲), became a singular figure of this time. The city of Kyoto was home to three eccentric and independent artists who were not tied to any artistic movement in particular but who each created totally unique personal styles. They, unsurprisingly became known as The Three Eccentrics. Compared to the other two Eccentrics of the mid-Edo period eccentric painters, Jakuchū, the eldest, is said to have been calm, restrained and professional. Whilst being an artist with strong Zen Buddhist ideals, a koji (a lay brother), he was also acutely aware of his role within a Kyoto society that was becoming increasingly prosperous and commercial.

With all outside influence eliminated, Japan was an island in the art world and its art evolved from new feelings toward old traditions and intense love of nature. They worked their art with a skill that is beyond imagination.

According to his monk-poet mentor, as a young man Jakuchū disliked studying and was a terrible calligrapher but did however, show a talent for painting. After his father’s death, Jakuchū inherited the family greengrocery business and ran it for 15 years. During this time he became a devout Zen Buddhist. It was not until the age of forty that he handed over the family business to his brother and dedicated himself entirely to painting.  Much of his subject matter was traditionally Japanese;  chickens, swallows, parrots, cranes and other birds, various fish and flowers. But Jakuchū’s choice of subject matter was where tradition ended. Everything else about his work was agressively progressive, ambitiously experimental and modern.

In addition to personal commissions, Jakuchū was commissioned to paint panels or screens for Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines across Japan. Despite his commercial success, Jakuchū lived the life of a bunjin, a literary intellectual. He was friends with many notable bunjin, went on journeys with them, and was influenced by their artistic styles. His unique style was a result of a combination of this bunjin influence, experiments with Western materials and perspective, Chinese techniques and his relentless creative drive.

Despite his individualism and involvement in the scholarly and artistic community of Kyoto, Jakuchū was always strongly religious. He retired to Sekihō-ji, a Manpuku-ji branch temple of the Ōbaku Zen sect on the southern outskirts of Kyoto.

There, he gathered a number of followers, and continued to paint until his death in 1800 at the age of eighty-five.

Golden Pheasant in the Snow. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.
Parrot on the Branch of a Flowering Rose Bush. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.
Red Parrot on the Branch of a Tree. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.
A White Macaw. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum. 
Swallow and Camellia. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.
The Paroquet. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.
Two Cranes. 1795. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.
White Plum Blossoms and Moon. 1755. Itō Jakuchū. The MET Museum.

December 2018.

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