Old Pine Tree and Peacock, c. 1759–1761
J. Rōshō kujaku zu
c. 1759–1761 (Hōreki 9–11)
142.5 x 79.7 cm
Signature: "Made by Layman Jakuchū"
Seals: (Top, square intaglio), "Jokin"
(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

In a series such as Colorful Realm, which depicts the most prevalent bird-and-flower subjects in East Asia, the inclusion of a peacock is not at all surprising. Although not native to Japan, the peacock was significant in Buddhist iconography as the steed of Mahamayuri, the Peacock King (J. Kujaku myō’ō).1 In continental symbolism the bird was associated with culture and the nine virtues in the Chinese classic Book of Changes (C. Yijing). In Chinese paintings and craft objects such as lacquerware, peacocks were commonly paired with peonies to convey auspicious messages for the acquisition of culture and prosperity. The present work was most likely modeled upon works by Jakuchū’s contemporary Oka Minzan (1734–1806) and other members of the Shen Nanpin school.

A comparison with works from China and the Shen Nanpin school, however, underscores Jakuchū’s transformation of subjects through the intensification of painting technique and coloration. Old Pine Tree and Peacock incorporates the same sophisticated layering of pigments that generates unique chromatic effects throughout Colorful Realm. Organic-green pigment and carbon-black sumi combine with light green on the underside of the silk to imbue the clusters of pine needles with a sense of spatial depth. Carefully drawn lines in shell-white pigment (gofun) and a verso application of the same pigment and ochre yellow (ōdo) produce the lacelike feathering of the peacock. Malachite green (rokushō) shades the underside of the peony leaves, and red brown (taisha), the reverse side of the pine trunk. These applications instill subtle hues and sheens into their respective surfaces.

Two aspects of Old Pine Tree and Peacock render it unusual among the scrolls of Colorful Realm. The first involves the use of gold paint for the distinctive eye patterns at the tips of the peacock’s fanlike plumage. Despite being generally extravagant with expensive pigments throughout the series, Jakuchū used gold paint only twice (here and Old Pine Tree and Cockatoos). He quite likely found gold unappealing, not only for its matte quality but also for its inability to convey the varying degrees of transparency he so prized. Close observation reveals his attempts to apply the gold as thinly as possible. He also applied an underlayer of cinnabar (shinsha), most likely in an effort to replicate the techniques of traditional Buddhist painting, in which red lead pigment was often used as a foundation for gold paint in order to generate a reddish-gold hue.

The second unusual aspect of the scroll is its use of heavy outlines for the large peony flowers gathered below. Also found in Peonies and Small Birds, these outlines convey a stiff, hardened appearance uncharacteristic of the painter’s general approach to form in his polychrome works. The outlines, however, could reflect Jakuchū’s reliance on painting manuals with printed woodblocks, in which case the outlines generated by key blocks would have been directly transferred to the paintings. Alternatively, they could suggest the influence of pattern-transfer techniques in textile decoration, or simply be an attempt to imbue the floral motifs here with coloristic and technical diversity.

1 For more on the Peacock King, see Masuki Ryūsuke, Kujaku myō’ō zō, vol. 508 of Nihon no bijutsu (Tokyo, 2008).