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Release Date: September 8, 2011

Biography: Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800)

The circumstances of Jakuchū's birth enabled him to retire early from his family business and devote himself almost entirely to painting. He was born in 1716 as the eldest son of the Masuya wholesaler that lent out space to grocers in Kyoto's Nishiki-Takakura District, a neighborhood that still functions as a foodstuffs market today. He served as the fourth-generation head of the Masuya for seventeen years, from his father's death in 1738 until 1755, when he retired and was succeeded by his younger brother Sōgon (1719–1792). Jakuchū's headship of the family business gave him both wealth and social status; long after retirement he maintained his standing as an elder of his neighborhood association (chō), and he fraternized with leading members of the mercantile and ecclesiastical community. From the accounts that have survived, however, the wholesaler enterprise was presumably cause for considerable stress, as Jakuchū was responsible for a great number of small transactions and the livelihood of thousands. The memory of this clamorous professional life may have led to a later fictitious anecdote, recorded by the scholar Hiraga Shōsai in 1793: while head of the Masuya, Jakuchū grew so disenchanted that he secluded himself in a mountain retreat in Tanba for some two years, resulting in turmoil for the three thousand grocers under his charge.

Vocational pressures may also have led Jakuchū sometime during his mid-to-late thirties to seek out the spiritual mentorship of the Zen monk Daiten. Daiten's was the decisive relationship in Jakuchū's artistic formation, providing the painter with not only religious guidance but also insights into literary tradition, entree to networks of prominent cultural enthusiasts, and access to the art treasures of Shōkokuji and other institutions. And Daiten was the one who most likely conferred upon the artist the Daoist sobriquet Jakuchū, which means “like a void,” and convinced him to make the abbot's monastery the home of Colorful Realm of Living Beings and his own burial ground. The Ōbaku-sect monk Baisa'ō (Old Tea Seller) represented another important source of emulation from this period. Espousing a humble, unattached life that eschewed monastic affiliation, Baisa'ō actually sold tea from a portable stand he set up next to various Kyoto landmarks. His embodiment of an unpretentious, spartan mode of existence made a deep impression upon Jakuchū. Likewise modeling himself as a layman or unaffiliated Buddhist, he painted portraits of Baisa'ō, had a number of works inscribed by the monk, and in a similar vein styled himself as the Old Man of One Rice Bushel (Beito'ō), indicating that he painted only for sustenance. Like the elder monk, Jakuchū aspired to the status of ultimate spiritual amateur.

The basic chronology of the thirty scrolls of Colorful Realm (c. 1757–1766) can be established on the basis of the seven dated works in the series; the state of its seals and signatures; the testimony of Daiten; Jakuchū's dedication inscription; and entries from the official chronicle of Shōkokuji, where the work was eventually donated. This sequence embodies progression from traditional bird-and-flower imagery that mostly recycles earlier Jakuchū subjects to more fanciful, oneiric imagery that is arguably motivated by a commemorative agenda. This evolution coincides with the artist's most productive period, one that also witnessed the painting of fifty large panels in 1759 for the Ōjoin at a subtemple of Shōkokuji, his most monumental and accomplished work in monochrome ink, and a similarly large-scale cycle of mural decor, this time in polychrome, for Kotohira Shrine on Shikoku Island in 1764.

The completion of Colorful Realm marked another transition in the life of the artist. In the ninth month of 1765, the artist donated Colorful Realm (then comprising twenty-four paintings) to Shōkokuji, along with the Śākyamuni Triptych. The timing of the donation may or may not have been catalyzed by the death of his younger brother Sōjaku ten days earlier. At the end of that year the artist declared his intention of donating one of his Kyoto residences to his neighborhood association in exchange for its annual provision of funds to Shōkokuji to commemorate Jakuchū in perpetuity. By the end of 1766 the artist had established his tombstone at the Shō'ō-an subtemple at Shōkokuji, inscribed with a lengthy epitaph on Jakuchū's life authored by Daiten. By this time the remaining six scrolls of Colorful Realm may possibly have been completed, though the first confirmed display of the entire set was for the thirty-third death anniversary of the artist's father in 1770.

Excerpted from Yukio Lippit, Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (Washington, DC, 2012), 138-142.

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