Nandina and Rooster, c. 1761–1765
J. Nanten yūkei zu
c. 1761–1765 (Hōreki 11–Meiwa 2)
142.2 x 79.4 cm
Seals: (Top, square intaglio), "Jokin"
(Bottom, square relief), "Tōshi Keiwa"

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

One of the most striking paintings in Colorful Realm, Nandina and Rooster depicts a black-and-gray Shamo rooster standing amidst clusters of cascading nandina berries. With legs spaced wide and a body coursing with tension, the rooster looks intently to the viewer’s right. Its size, taut expression, gleaming yellow eye, and open beak convey an intimidating, bellicose disposition, a readiness for martial engagement at any moment. This combative profile is paralleled by the intensity of the red-and-black palette. Very little softens this chromatic bipolarity: the white chrysanthemums in the background, the white dots on the rooster’s comb, and the yellow bird in the upper left, though even it has a red berry in its beak.

The Shamo chicken, whose name derives from an Edo-period corruption of Siam (Shamu), was a breed imported from that country by the 17th century for cockfighting. Such brutal contests were outlawed by the Tokugawa shogunate, however, and the Shamo chicken came to be prized as a domesticated garden fowl and culinary delicacy.

Despite its belligerent appearance, the rooster here may be intended to convey spiritual connotations. In Zen Buddhist representations the rooster’s piercing cry was associated with spiritual awakening; indeed, the Tokyo National Museum preserves a late 13th-century ink painting by the Chinese monk Luochuang of a rooster anticipating the morning sun. In Jakuchū’s painting, the countenance and pose of the rooster suggest that it is closely attuned to the approach of dawn, and the blush of the ground plane suggests the arrival of aurora. Awakening is imminent.

The combined presence of chrysanthemum and nandina suggests the seasonal setting of late autumn or early winter. The nandina plant, known as heavenly bamboo (tianzhu) in China, bore auspicious connotations throughout East Asia. It was especially prized in Japan for decorative and medicinal use, and paintings of its berries could convey anything from New Year’s greetings to wishes for abundant offspring. The depiction of nandina here is unusual in that its berries are bunched in cascading panicles that resemble grapes or wisteria flowers. Perhaps Jakuchū was influenced by his copies of Korean ink paintings of grapes, or perhaps he was emphasizing the association of these panicles with prosperity and multiple offspring.

The recent conservation of Colorful Realm revealed how the varied coloring of the nandina berries was achieved. Cinnabar (shinsha) was applied in varying degrees of thickness and selectively supplemented by additional red on the verso of the silk or by an overlayer of organic-red pigment. Three specific berries were even given touches of yellow pigment to convey their maturity. This variation in treatment imbues the crimson canopy with a rich diversity of expression and a sense of complex spatial depth.