Itō Jakuchū (伊藤若冲, 1716-1800) was a painter known for his almost surrealist, detailed depictions of exotic birds and fowl. He painted traditional Japanese motifs, experimenting with perspectives and other modern stylistic elements. He was the eldest of the three Edo-era "eccentrics" and considered the most serious. His eccentricity was not based on outrageous behaviour but on his bold combinations of colours and elements. He regarded his style as "something that will only be understood in a thousand years".

Born the eldest son of a prosperous greengrocer from Kyōto, he took over the family business after his father's death. In the early 1750s, Jakuchū befriended Chikujo Daiten (1717-1801), a well-known priest and artist at the Shōkokuji Temple (相国寺) in northern Kyōto who, in his Tō Keiwa Gaki (Notes on Paintings by Tō Keiwa) provided the first account of Jakuchū's art (Tō Keiwa was the name he often used). Chikujo Daiten wrote:

Keiwa, as a young man, never liked studying. He had no talent in calligraphy. He was hardly versed in anything that can be called an accomplishment. All the pleasures of music and sensual experience that an ordinary man would seek did not attract him. He ignored all the wealth, profit, and success that dazzled the people of this capital. He did not even cast one glance at them. By nature, he would prefer to be alone, exhausting himself all day in painting. Thirty years of immersion in painting was like one full day to him.
Translation by Yoshiaki Shimizu

In 1755, Jakuchū relinquished the management of the family business to his brother to pursue his ambitions as a painter. During that period, Jakuchū developed an interest in Buddhism and became a disciple of his mentor, Daiten, receiving the title of Koji (居士 "lay devotee").

While little is known about his training as a painter, the Gajō yōryaku (画乗要略), a record about early artists, states that his teacher was Ōoka Shumboku (大岡春ト, 1680-1763), a Kanō-style artist from Ōsaka renowned for compiling printed painting manuals. The Gajō yōryaku also mentions Jakuchū's study of Chinese bird and flower painting, and it is very likely that Daiten also granted him access to the Shōkokuji's vast collection of Chinese and Japanese masterpieces. Rather than adhering to traditional painting formulas, he seemed to have relied on close personal observation: he kept exotic birds in his garden, which he studied and painted. While the meticulous details of Jakuchū's illustrations of parrots, roosters and peacocks seem to attest to this, he was also influenced by the Western botanical, zoological and mineralogical drawings that made their way into Japan through the Dutch settlement in Nagasaki.

Around 1758, he started working on a set of 30 large hanging scrolls as a votive offering to the Shōkokuji, conceived as ceremonial paintings for Buddhist rituals. They consisted of 27 paintings of flowers, birds, and fishes flanking a triptych of Shakyamuni Buddha and two bodhisattvas, Fugen (普賢菩薩, skt: Samantabhadra) and Monju (文殊, skt: Mañjuśrī). In 1770, the entire set of paintings was presented to the temple, and in 1889, all but the central triptych was given by the temple to the imperial family. Other famous works include "Pictures of the Colorful Realm of Living Beings" (動植綵絵 Dōshoku sai-e) and "Birds and Animals in the Flower Garden" (鳥獣花木図屏風 Chōjūkaboku-zu byōbu).

In the mid-1770s, Jakuchū retreated to the Sekihōji temple (石峰寺) in the mountains of Tamba Province (modern-day Kyōto Prefecture). He embarked on a project to create a series of outdoor sculptures depicting the eight phases of Shakyamuni's life (釋迦八相 Shaka hassō), which included 500 stone images of arhats (jp: 羅漢 Rakan), devotional objects representing the 500 disciples of Buddha who attained nirvāṇa. To support himself, he had to exchange ink drawings for rice, often signing them Tobei-ō (斗米翁 "Old four bushels of rice man") or Beito-ō (米斗翁 "old man Beito"). After the Great Fire of Kyōto in 1788, he was left destitute and contracted an eye disease two years later. Despite illness and poverty, he returned to finish his project at the Sekihōji and died shortly after that in 1800.


Itō Jakuchū Album:

More images: 伊藤若冲 動植綵絵(どうしょく さいえ)大きな画像で見たい人用 まとめ (in Japanese)