Roses and Small Bird, c. 1761–1765
J. Bara shōkin zu
c. 1761–1765 (Hōreki 11–Meiwa 2)
142.7 x 79.6 cm
Signature: "Painted by Jakuchū of the Studio of the Expansive Spirit"
Seals: (Top, square intaglio), "Tō Jokin'in"
(Bottom, round relief), "Jakuchū koji"

from Itō Jakuchū, Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766, Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

The rose is typically not included among the classical cultural flora of East Asia, but its appearance in literary and artistic representations goes back many centuries. The extended bloom of the so-called Chinese rose (Rosa chinensis) earned it an association with longevity and the sobriquet Flower of Eternal Spring (C. changchunhua, J. chōshunka). Throughout East Asia varieties of the Chinese rose were often pictorialized with other motifs to convey wishes for continuous good fortune, and the specific combination of the rose with the Chinese bulbul (C. baitouweng, J. hakutō’ō) and Taihu rock was understood to form a rebus wishing married couples long life and happiness (C. changchun baitou).1 Although the lone bird in Roses and Small Bird has not been identified and differs in minor details from the standard features of a bulbul, the combination of motifs here may have been modeled on a Chinese work that formed this established word puzzle.

Jakuchū’s composition appears to showcase three different rose varieties. The peach-colored flower with multiple petals and a full appearance resembling peonies is a variety of the Rosa chinensis popular in Japan and known there as kōshinbara. The large white variety with double-lobed leaves is a Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata), whereas the smaller white roses tinged with pink are examples of the baby or rambler rose (Rosa multiflora). Their combination fulfills the painter’s general preference for flowers with a white, pink, and red tonal range. While the frontal depiction of the flowers follows traditional habits of representation in Japanese court painting and crafts, a lone white blossom at top center faces the other way. Such singular “outsider” motifs are common in Jakuchū’s allover compositions.

Two of the three types of roses depicted, the Cherokee and rambler, are scrambling shrubs that climb over other plants to achieve a considerable height, as in the present work. The Chinese rose, however, is a more traditional shrub that tends not to behave as a climbing plant. Jakuchū’s composition therefore contains an element of irreality in treating its floral protagonists as creepers that rise beyond the top edge of the picture plane and cascade downward in bunches, much like panicles of wisteria or other familiar hanging vines. The broad, abstract strokes of the ground plane; exaggerated form of the Taihu rock with its starlike mossy surface pattern; and frontal depiction of most of the flowers determine the highly decorative and contrived air of Roses and Small Bird.

Unsurprisingly, careful pigment analysis suggests that Jakuchū paid remarkable attention to detail and subtle coloristic effects. The white-petaled roses are depicted with a layer of shell-white powder (gofun) on the back of the silk, complemented by modeling on the front with shell white at the outer edges of the petals. This modeling fades toward the inner portion of the petals, resulting in beautifully transparent effects that are modulated with touches of green and pink, and with colorful stamens at the center. The leaves skillfully combine thin veins of malachite green (rokushō) with layerings of organic-green pigment punctuated by red spotting. Jakuchū made abundant use of the latter pigment, a red brown (taisha), for the stamens and thorns as well; indeed, as work on the Colorful Realm series advanced, he shifted away from mineral-red pigments.

Numerous commentators have suggested that the lone bird — which appears to be acknowledging the artist’s signature — is a portrait or avatar of Jakuchū.

1 Terese Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2006), 220.