Wild Goose and Reeds, c. 1765–1766
J. Rogan zu
c. 1765–1766 (Meiwa 2–3)
142.5 x 79.6 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

A time-honored subject in East Asian painting, the combination of geese and reeds is also found in an earlier work in Colorful Realm. Wild Goose and Reeds, however, represents an unusual variation on a familiar theme. Here, a large goose appears not to fly but to be caught in a free fall, hurtling down toward the frozen surface of a pond or a lake. Its glaciated surface is suggested by the geometric, tortoiseshell-patterned cracks in the bottom foreground that extend into the cluster of dry, snowbound reeds anchoring the lower-right corner. The stiff, taxidermic appearance of the goose and uncomplicated composition have underwhelmed most commentators over the years, but further consideration raises intriguing questions.

Interpreters of Jakuchū’s art tend to read the artist’s psychological state into his works, even ones as conditioned by convention as his polychrome bird-and-flower paintings. A close-up of the goose’s head does indeed appear to reflect anxiety or distress, especially in the ambiguous manner in which the beak is open and the tongue raised (unusual attention is also paid to the articulation of the bird’s teeth). Commentators have linked the apparently distressed state of the bird to the death of Jakuchū’s youngest brother, Sōjaku, in the ninth month of 1765, just before the artist’s formal donation of the Colorful Realm set to Shōkokuji.

As Ōta Aya noted, however, the particular pose and aspect of the goose in this work may have been derived from paintings of predatory birds such as hawks and eagles chasing their prey.1 These works were popular among the aristocracy and military elite throughout East Asia, and in Japan numerous examples were created by professional painters from the 16th century onward. They occasionally pictured geese as the pursued party, and one such example—depicting a goose in midflight with outspread wings—may well have served as a model for Wild Goose and Reeds. The tense and focused countenance of Jakuchū’s goose, as well as its awkward positioning and scale within the composition, can be at least partially attributed to this derivation.

Another question concerns the degree to which the simplicity of composition is reflected in a simplicity of facture. As with the other scrolls in Colorful Realm, careful analysis of the coloration suggests otherwise. A close-up of the ice cracks reveals attention to the intangible aspects of a wintry atmosphere and frosted surface. Sumi ink applied to the back of most of the silk surface imbues it with sheens of depth, while the explicitly iced portion at the bottom is similarly colored on the underside with indigo blue. Shell-white pigment (gofun) models the edge of the ice cracks, while the interval between them is carefully modeled with sumi. The clump of frozen pampas grass on the middle-right edge is articulated with fine lines of shell white, sumi, and red-brown pigment (taisha), while differences in the accumulation of snow are depicted through varied applications of shell white on the recto and verso of the surface. Close-ups of the dried reed leaves reveal that the extensive use of malachite-green pigment (rokushō) together with red-brown pigment (taisha) conveys a carefully calibrated impression of faded verdure.

1 See Ōta Aya's commentary in Itō Jakuchū Dōshoku sai-e zen sanjuppuku (Tokyo, 2010), 1:265.