image: Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by ItŎ Jakuchū (1716–1800) National Gallery of Art

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About Itō Jakuchū

Colorful Realm of Living Beings, a 30-scroll set of paintings by Itō Jakuchū, is one of Japan's most renowned cultural treasures. This extraordinary work, which had never before been displayed in its entirety outside of Japan, was on view at the National Gallery of Art for one month only. Created over a span of some 10 years (c. 1757–1766), the series presents a range of subjects from the natural world—birds, fish, insects, reptiles, flowers, and plants.

Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800) lived during Japan's peaceful Edo period. Born into a wealthy family of merchants that operated a wholesale foodstuffs business in Kyoto, Jakuchū retired from the family business in 1755 to pursue the study of Zen Buddhism and the practice of painting. His innovative and experimental style was influenced by the study of Chinese painting at Zen temples, the patterns and designs of Kyoto textiles, natural history collections, and direct observation of nature.

"Flowers, birds, grasses, and insects each have their own innate spirit. Only after one has actually determined the true nature of this spirit through observation should painting begin."
—Itō Jakuchū

Jakuchū painted Colorful Realm on silk, carefully mixing, matching, shading, and layering his pigments (on both the front and back) to create remarkable coloristic effects as well as an impression of spatial depth.

In Mandarin Ducks in Snow, Jakuchū splattered shell-white pigment on both the front and back of the silk to give the impression of snow falling at different depths of field. On some of the scrolls, such as Peonies and Small Birds, Jakuchū painted almost the entire surface. Other scrolls include open areas that suggest water, sky, and land (see Peonies and Butterflies and Lotus Pond and Fish).

Jakuchū donated Colorful Realm, along with his Śãkyamuni Triptych to Shōkokuji, a major Zen monastery in Kyoto. At the National Gallery, all of the works were displayed in one room, as they might have been at Shōkokuji—with "living beings" gathering around the Buddha to listen to his sermon and symbolizing the harmony of all living creatures in nature.

Above, left: Itō Jakuchū, Śākyamuni Triptych, consisting of The Buddha Śākyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, c. first half of the 1760s, set of three hanging scrolls, Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto