Lotus Pond and Fish, c. 1761–1765
J. Renchi yūgyo zu
c. 1761–1765 (Hōreki 11–Meiwa 2)
142.5 x 79.6 cm
Signature: “Jakuchū, Master of the Hut of One Bushel of Rice” (Tobei’an-shu Jakuchū)
Seals: (Top left, round intaglio),“Jokin”
(Bottom left, round relief),“Jakuchū koji”
(Upper right, vertical rectangular
relief), “Enlivened by his hand, his
paintings are filled with a mysterious
spirit” (Tansei kasshu no myō kami ni tsūzu)

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

Constituting one of the most whimsical compositions in the Colorful Realm series, Lotus Pond and Fish depicts a school of sweetfish (ayu) swimming from right to left in a lotus pond, accompanied by a freshwater minnow (oikawa) below. While invoking the traditional meaning of the lotus as a Buddhist symbol of purity and rebirth, the work is also based upon the traditional Chinese fish-and-waterweed (zaoyu tu) painting genre. And yet multiple vantage points combine to engineer a wondrous and impossible image. Motifs are shown from directly overhead, on ground level, or inside the water. This shifting perspective presupposes multiple viewing positions and assigns multiple roles to the various zones of the picture, such as the cloudlike water-cum-embankment in the lower-right corner. The eccentric quality of the composition is enhanced by the large scale of the lotus leaves and the anthropomorphism of the leaf and flower at top, each seemingly with an eye directed at the viewer.

Paintings of lotus ponds traditionally incorporated the symbolism of the life cycle by depicting lotus flowers at various stages of growth and decay.1 Jakuchū’s painting is no exception, displaying buds, full blooms, flowers in the midst of decay, and lotus leaves with decaying edges. Once again, the painter’s attention to coloristic detail is exceptional, as witnessed in the depiction of the mouth and fins of the minnow. Touches of red lead are caressed into a substrate of whites and yellows, in addition to the sumi ink, azurite blue, and organic-red pigment used for the webbing.

Jakuchū’s signatural inscription is worthy of attention. The work, it states, was painted by the Master of the Tobei’an (Hut of One Bushel of Rice), indicating that by about this time Jakuchū had adopted a new painting sobriquet to replace Keiwa. The idea of one bushel of rice reflected the conceit that Jakuchū painted not for profit, but only for sustenance, that is to say, only in exchange for a bushel of rice.2 Although he almost certainly did not paint in exchange for rice, the sobriquet betrays the strong influence of the monk Baisa’ō, the Old Tea Seller, as well as a subscription to the amateur ideal that was prized among the lettered elite throughout East Asia (though most literati painters who asserted nonprofessional status received some form of compensation for their works). Jakuchū’s embrace of this ideal is in one sense ironic: even though he did not paint for profit most of his life—he was a true amateur—his polychrome paintings were much more proximate to the pictorial modes of professional painters.

1 Ogawa Hiromitsu, “Chūgoku kachōga no jikū—kachōga kara kaki zatsuga e,” in Chūgoku no kachōga to Nihon, ed. Ogawa et al., vol. 10 of Kachōga no sekai (Tokyo, 1983).
2 The word to, translated here for convenience as bushel, was a traditional unit of measurement, sometimes referred to as a Chinese peck, that could vary in quantity but was fixed at 18.039 liters during the Meiji period (1868–1912). This would make it roughly half the size of an actual bushel (35.24 liters).