Fish, c. 1765–1766
J. Shogyo zu
c. 1765–1766 (Meiwa 2–3)
142.6 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

Fish and its companion painting were hung on opposing sides of the central Buddhist triptych as an offering to the Buddha and whomever was commemorated in the Kannon repentance ritual held at Shōkokuji. This seemingly random and colorful assemblage of fish and a pair of octopi is distantly rooted in a longstanding tradition of East Asian fish-and-waterweed paintings (C. zaoyu tu, J. sōgyo zu). Works of this genre drew primarily upon a homonym: the word for “fish” in Chinese (yu) could also mean “abundance” (yu). Various combinations of fish and other motifs could form pictorial rebuses wishing for prosperity and marital harmony. As with earlier works in Colorful Realm, Fish thus repurposes motifs with an auspicious valence in pictorial culture toward the population and visualization of a teeming, multitudinous, inspirited Buddha realm.

One inspiration for this work may have been Korean painting, which tended to depict assorted fish swimming unidirectionally toward the lower left.1 Jakuchū may also have drawn upon his proximity to the fresh fish markets of Kyoto, which neighbor the vegetable vendors he oversaw in the Nishiki-Takakura District, for his exacting depictions of the glossy texture and iridescence of individual fish. Indeed, many of the examples he depicted are still commonly found in Japanese fish markets, including bonito (katsuo), yellowtail (buri), and red sea bream (aka amadai). The combination of river and ocean fish is odd, however, and some depictions are unconvincing and appear unrelated to direct observation — blowfish (see lower-left corner), for instance, do not swim in a puffed-out state.

Neither painting model nor direct observation, however, adequately explains the unique combination of meticulous facture, vitality, and occasionally playful mannerism that characterizes the myriad and sundry motifs of Colorful Realm. Rather, by representing the convergence of traditional East Asian painting subjects and a close study of things—whether agricultural yields or natural-history collections—with intensive coloristic experimentation, these motifs approximate and enact the integrated nature of the world.

The ambiguous aquatint of the underwater setting is created through the application of indigo blue (ai) across the surface of the silk, combined with an organic-green pigment on the back. Ochre-yellow pigment (ōdo) on the reverse adds to the hue and intensity of the yellow eyes among many of the fish. Close-ups reveal that streaks of malachite green (rokushō) accent the otherwise understated waterweeds.

1 For a recent discussion of the relationship of Korean painting to Jakuchū’s production, see Fukushi Yūya, “Jakuchū to Chōsen kaiga,” Ajia yūgaku 120 (March 2009): 178–185.