Combined here are the traditional auspicious motifs of plum blossoms and cranes, which generally conveyed wishes for a long life. The painting also alludes to the plum poetry and reclusive aspirations of the Chinese Song dynasty poet Lin Bu, who lived in the vicinity of Hangzhou’s West Lake and claimed the plum tree as his wife and the cranes as his children. In Jakuchū’s painting there appear to be six cranes standing underneath a single blossoming plum tree, but their bodies overlap in complex ways and some of the legs are difficult to match with individual birds. A decorative Taihu rock in the lower-right foreground is depicted in the archaic blue-green style, a pictorial mode with associations of paradise and the land of the immortals.
Plum Blossoms and Cranes effectively combines the groupings of cranes common in the Shen Nanpin school with a decorative backdrop more customary of the traditional courtly styles of Japanese painting. Here, the plum blossoms are distinct from those in earlier works in form, scale, and coloration. Flat and patternlike, these blossoms harken back to a more stylized convention of depiction. Indeed, they resemble the patterning found on craft objects and textiles, and are possibly influenced by the so-called Kōrin pattern (Kōrin moyō) prevalent in the decor of 18th-century robes (kosode) in Kyoto.
The cranes depicted here may possibly bear the traces of Jakuchū’s careful study of the pair of crane scrolls by the Ming painter Wen Cheng in Shōkokuji. Jakuchū’s version, painted in about 1753/1754 and now in a Japanese private collection, is faithful to the avian forms and glistening linear plumage of their Chinese prototype, but stylizes the background motifs. This same sensibility can be found in Plum Blossoms and Cranes, most notably in the ground plane and remarkable abstraction of the foreground rocks, as well as in the playfully varied forms of the cranes themselves. In addition, each crane is differentiated by a varying application of coloration and facture; the intensity of the shell-white (gofun) pigment and the verso coloration depends upon each crane’s pose and body part. This work is notable for its unusually sophisticated verso pigmentation, which includes the application of organic blue behind the sky, organic green under the ground plane, and ochre yellow (ōdo) for the earthen foreground in the lower-right corner.
Toward the upper-right corner is a seal that reads “While painting he cares not of old age.” The phrase quotes a verse from the poem “A Song of Painting: To General Cao Ba” by the Chinese poet Du Fu (712–770). Cao Ba was renowned for his prowess in painting, particularly his skill in painting horses. Jakuchū was fond of using this seal in his early works of the mid-1750s, and many commentators understand the seal text as underscoring the artist’s single-minded pursuit of painting. But the verse that follows the quoted phrase in Du Fu’s poem probably resonated even more with Jakuchū’s self-conception: “Riches and rank are to him no more than clouds floating by.”
1 See Itō Jakuchū Dōshoku sai-e zen sanjuppuku (Tokyo, 2010), 1:90.