Golden Pheasants in Snow, c. 1761–1765
J. Setchū kinkei zu
c. 1761–1765 (Hōreki 11–Meiwa 2)
142.2 x 79.6 cm
Signature: "Made by Jakuchū of the Nishiki District" (Nishiki-machi Jakuchū sei su)
Seals: (Top, square intaglio), "Jokin"
(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

Among the 30 paintings of the Colorful Realm series, this work conveys a particularly distinct impression through its singular palette and composition. A pair of pheasants (kinkei) rest on the curved branch of a Japanese cypress tree (hinoki). Surrounding the avian protagonists are bright green scale-leaves, laden with snow, while pink camellias (tsubaki) enliven the bottom half of the picture. The strong contrast between the bright red underside of the male pheasant and the green cypress leaves determines the picture’s chromatic profile. Indeed, it is one of the few scrolls in the series in which no blue pigment is used at all. The entire scene appears to be pushed up to the foreground, with glimpses of a dark and deeply recessed landscape beyond. The flamboyant S-curve of the tree branch and ambiguity of the snow-bound form below add a certain whimsy to the composition. The combination of softly falling snow, leaves splaying every which way, and glutinous accumulations of snow clinging to the tree creates a festive and strangely animistic picture.

The pheasant represents yet another traditional bird-and-flower subject incorporated into the Colorful Realm set. Pairing it with hinoki, however, is highly unusual, if not unprecedented. Like the rooster, the pheasant was ascribed the five virtues in Chinese antiquity and became a popular subject for painting from the Song period (960–1276) onward.1 Despite its highly decorative plumage, the pheasant also came to be closely associated with the scholar-official and was frequently commissioned by patrons with cultural aspirations. Beginning in the 16th century, Japanese painters of the professional Kano house incorporated pheasants into large-scale folding screen paintings of the four seasons. In these works the semantics of the pheasant shifted from cultural associations to paradisal ones. Japanese paintings of the four seasons portrayed an exotic and colorful aviary as a pictorial representation of a Buddhist paradise; Golden Pheasants in Snow may also bear associations with the Western Pure Land of the Amida Buddha.

Jakuchū’s earliest surviving works suggest that he held an interest in conveying the texture of snow in its manifold states. Falling snow is depicted with a combination of large globules and a fine powdery spray of shell-white pigment (gofun) spattered here and there. Of particular interest was depicting snow that had partially melted: to convey a sense of modeling, the painter carefully manipulated the layering of shell white, using sliding scales of transparency across the surfaces of snowbound motifs. This layering was echoed by a similarly complex application of shell white on the reverse side of the silk. In Golden Pheasants in Snow, the distant earthen form glimpsed beyond the pheasants’ tails is colored entirely with shell white applied to the back. The result, when viewed from the front, is a dim, chalky ridgeline.

1 For a survey of Chinese pheasant  painting, see Hou-mei Sung, Decoded  Messages: The Symbolic Language of  Chinese Animal Painting (Cincinnati Art  Museum, 2009), 81–90.