Maple Tree and Small Birds, c. 1765–1766
J. Kōyō shōkin zu
c. 1765–1766 (Meiwa 2–3)
142.4 x 79 cm
Seals: (Top, square intaglio),"Tō Jokin'in"
(Bottom, square 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

Upon first glance, Maple Tree and Small Birds appears to represent an exception to the trend toward whimsy that increasingly characterizes later scrolls in the Colorful Realm set. Both in subject matter and composition, this work recalls classical norms for Japanese painting, especially in the patternlike, frontal depiction of each maple leaf; when taken together as a group, the leaves appear to be floating on a watery surface. The two blue-and-white flycatchers (ōruri) facing each other among the branches add a musical element to this bright fall scene. In Jakuchū’s environment, such a scene would have been readily encountered among the precincts of Kyoto’s many temples and shrines during midautumn.

Closer inspection, however, uncovers a number of Jakuchūesque elements. The highly mannered and repetitive depiction of the tree branches suggests a composition designed more with a parabolic compass than with a free hand. Also, moving downward, successively smaller branches with the same degree of curvature shoot off one another. On the longest of these branches, another notably implausible form—a ring—is found near the left edge of the painting. Such rare branch-rings were viewed as auspicious occurrences, and the presence of one here is in keeping with the general optimism of the scroll.

The characteristic of Maple Tree and Small Birds most in keeping with the overall profile of Colorful Realm is, without doubt, the attention paid to the precise representation of color. Each leaf is meticulously crafted to reflect different stages of development, from brightest red to nearly brown. Even a single leaf can slide from opacity to transparency across its surface. Varying hues of red, orange, and yellow were generated by layering mineral and organic pigments in different combinations on both the front and back of the silk ground. Over 90 percent of the leaves in Maple Tree and Small Birds are depicted with verso pigmentation, including some that consist only of cinnabar pigment (shinsha) on the back. The recent conservation of Colorful Realm clarified the presence and role of verso coloration in the diagonal light rays in the lower-left quadrant of the painting. These rays reveal that the intent of this scroll is to depict the momentary brilliance of sunlight hitting autumn foliage, resulting in an eruption of color and luminosity, a true embodiment of “liquid maple.”

The presence of the square (not round) relief “Jakuchū koji” seal in the lower right, noted by Ōta Aya, is unique among the scrolls in Colorful Realm. Because the same seal appears in several ink paintings that can be attributed to the painter’s disciple Jakuen, Ōta suggested that Jakuen may have played a significant role in the crafting of Maple Tree and Small Birds.1 This observation is interesting in light of how little is known concerning Jakuchū’s disciples. Although Jakuchū is normally represented as a singular artist working alone, a 1787 account of a visit to his studio reports the presence of four assistants. Paintings by disciples such as Hakusai, Shōchū, Ichū, Shochū, and Yōchū have survived, although the works are not distinguished and none of the disciples succeeded in carrying on Jakuchū’s painting legacy. Among them, only Jakuen produced notable works, and he (as well as other assistants) may well have played an important complementary role throughout the creation of the Colorful Realm of Living Beings.

1 See Itō Jakuchū Dōshoku sai-e zen sanjuppuku (Tokyo, 2010), 1:90.