Chickens, c. 1761–1765
J. Gunkei zu
c. 1761–1765 (Hōreki 11–Meiwa 2)
141.8 x 79.4 cm
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

One of the most dynamic, allover compositions in the Colorful Realm, Chickens departs dramatically from earlier scrolls in the set that depict fowl in ones and twos. Here, 13 chickens—12 roosters and 1 hen—are grouped against a mostly blank background with their plumage forming a richly abstract tapestry of color and pattern. Each pose captures the chicken’s tendency to crane its neck toward the object of attention, compensating for an inability to move its eyeballs within their sockets. Collectively, however, the positioning of the chickens is notably unnatural: not only could 12 roosters never peacefully coexist in such proximity, absent any pecking order, but their heads are also extended in different directions as if they are attempting to discern the source of an ambient, mysterious sound. Their long necks form a steady zigzag pattern that moves up the scroll surface and is punctuated by brilliant red starbursts (their cockscombs). Amidst this dense pattern field, a lone rooster in the lower center of the composition stares out at the viewer, providing a point of identification and even a measure of comic relief.

Two types of chickens were common in Japan before the Edo period: the single-combed jidori and the long-feathered shōkoku.1 During the 17th century, trade with Southeast Asia introduced the fierce Shamo (the name derives from a Japanese corruption of Siam) and the chabo, now sometimes known as the Japanese bantam. Chickens were then also commonly bred for longer tail feathers and other decorative purposes. By the mid-18th century, Jakuchū was able to draw upon a diverse roster of rooster types for his poultry paintings.

As Melinda Takeuchi noted, however, the 1750s and 1760s witnessed a shift in the artist’s relationship to the rooster as a painting subject.2 Whereas earlier works focus on direct observation and verisimilar representation, later depictions such as the present work highlight decorative features. Cockscombs, wattles, and plumage are exaggerated or reconceived in ways that deviate from the arrangements of the natural world. Constituent elements from different rooster types were brought together to compose visually striking birds with no corollary in the stockades of 18th-century Kyoto. Although this shift appears to belie Jakuchū’s carefully cultivated reputation for drawing directly from observation, it is consistent with his tendency, witnessed throughout his polychrome painting production, to accentuate the representation of local colors and textures in order to imbue motifs with both a heightened intensity of presence and greater resonance with other elements.

As opposed to the visual chaos of the front, the back of the silk scroll reveals a more legible composition, suggesting that it was initially conceived in an underdrawing. Satō Yasuhiro has noted that the design of Chickens might have been inspired by similar zigzag patterns in paintings and textile designs of the celebrated Kyoto artist Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716).3

1 This discussion of chicken types in Jakuchū’s painting is indebted to a highly informative lecture by Melinda Takeuchi, “Tales the Feather Tells: Itō Jakuchū’s Roosters and Edo-Period Realism” (lecture, Harvard University, February 2006). I am grateful to Professor Takeuchi for sharing the lecture manuscript with me.
2 See Takeuchi 2006.
3 Satō Yasuhiro, Itō Jakuchū, vol. 256 of Nihon no bijutsu (Tokyo, 1987), 45.