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Ito Jakuchu

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Edo Eccentric painter and printmaker
Japanese, (1715–1800)
Painter, printmaker. Born and worked in Kyoto. Son of a rich grocer, lived in the Nishiki quarter near the markets; financially free, was able to devote his whole life to painting. Specialized in painting elegant barnyard fowl--keeping many exotic birds in his garden--but also produced Buddhist subjects. Though he studied Kano painting, was mainly influenced by the Chinese Yuan and Ming paintings of the academic school that he saw at the Shokoku-ji, where he lived and worked after 1788 when his house in the Nishiki burned down, and for which he did many paintings. A solitary figure in the history of Japanese painting. His pictures were ignored until he was rediscovered in the late 19th century. His birds and flowers are painted with a realism that preceded and at times exceeded that of Okyo, but his decorative arrangements and sense of color and design show the influence of Korin. Also painting in ink, in the style of willful distortion and daring brushwork, a style totally at variance with his other one for which he is better known. Also made a number of prints in the ishizuri technique (designs printed in white reserve on black) and illustrated several books. Note: After 1776, his studio produced many pictures that carry the seal or signature of Jakuchu but are not necessarily by him.
Alternate names: Ito Shunkyo, Jokin, Keiwa, Tobeian, Tomaio.
-- Roberts, L. Dictionary of Japanese Artists (1980)

Ito Jakuchu was born on the eighth day of the second month of the year 1716. Nothing is known of his early years, not even his childhood name. The Ito family were wholesale greengrocers. The family store, popularly known as the Masugen, was situated in the Nishiki neighborhood, within the Nakauoyacho section of the quarter. Jakuchu's father was the third to own and operate the business, and he died in 1738 at the age of forty-two. His mother, Seiju, lived on to the advanced age of eighty, passing away in 1779. There appear to have been four siblings, Jakuchu and his brothers Sogan and Sojaku, followed by their sister, Shinjaku.
Jakuchu was compelled to take up responsibility for operating the family busines when his father died. Documentary sources suggest that he was not suited, either in temperament or in personality, to a career as the head of a wholesale business. He understandably looked elsewhere for solace from the tedium of shopkeeping. Religion provided him with a convrenient refuge from the humdrum, appealing particularly to his introverted, reclusive nature. Although Jakuchu's early religious traning took place within the conventional, prescriptive framework of Pure Land ritual, his curiosity bout spiritual matters eventually led him to another realm of Buddhist thought. Sometime in his thirties, he became interested in Zen Buddhism.
Jakuchu's friend and confidant Daiten Kenjo (1719-1801), chief abbot of the Shokoku-ji, was the central figure in the artist's involvement with Zen activities. Daiten was a literary monk and wrote the memorial text called "Ketsumei" which was inscribed on a commemorative stele erected by Jakuchu himself in 1766. Jakuchu koji, a signature found on some early paintings, indicates that the artist began to use this appellation no later than when he was in his late thirties. Daiten may well have been responsible for conferring the name on the artist because of its origin in classical Chinese literature and its philosophical connotation. Ther term "jakuchu" may be translated "like a void." The artist's use of the title "koji" as a suffix to his name indicates that he had become a Buddhist lay monk. This development also corresponded chronologically with his final disaffection from the responsibilities and obligations of running the family business. At the age of forty, Jakuchu was finally relieved of this burden, and his younger brother Sogan took over as the fifth Masugen.
Jakuchu probably began to study painting when he was in his twenties, and this solitary, absorbing pursuit soon became a primary preoccupation, isolating him from the monotonous tedium of daily life. Daiten in his "Ketsumei" noted that the artist studied under a master from the Kano school, who may have the Osaka artist Ooka Shumboku. Daiten further noted that Jakuchu turned to a different souce of inspiration: Chinese paiting of the Song and Yuan periods. Jakuchu became familiar with a substantial number of Chinese paintings in his earlier years, and these served as a primary source of inspiration and pictorial ideas for his own creative efforts. There can be little doubt that Jakuchu's friendship with Daiten wa essential in facilitating this process.
The exact location of Jakuchu's studio-residence is not clear, but it may have been outheast of the Nishiki market. The building was given the evocative name Shin'enkan, whose literary origin--the characters "shin" (heart, mind) and "en" (distant, far)--is a passage in a poem devoted to the pleasures of drinking wine by the celebrated Chinese poet of the fourth century Tao Yuanming (365-427), which reads: "If the heart ranges far, one's spirit follows." The free translation "Villa of the Expansive Spirit" may serve to convey something of the artist's intention.
Jakuchu probably began his most ambitious artistic undertaking somtime in 1757 when he was forty-two or forty-three years old. This series of thirty large hanging scrolls, known as the "Doshoku Sai-e (Colorful Realm of Living Beings)" was designed to be hung in two groups, flanking a Budhist iconic triptych with depictions of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and the bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra. Jakuchu worked on this monumental project, one of the most admired works of the Edo period, for close to a decade. The entire set of thirty scrolls was in the possession of Shokoku-ji no later than 1770.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, the retiring Jakuchu did not travel extensively in search of recreation, inspiration, and patronage or for the purpose of executing artistic commissions. However, he did make on long trip away from Kyoto during the course of his work on the "Doshoku Sai-e" series in order to do a series of paintings on sliding screens in the Kotohiragu shrine headquarters. Later in 1767, Jakuchu and Daiten set on for a brief excursion down the Yodo River from Fushimi to Osaka. Jakuchu conceived a landscape composition which was reproduced in woodblock impresions on a long handscroll. He used a special technique of woodblock printing, called "taku hanga" (rubbing or intaglio woodblock print), so that the subjects appear uniformly in white and the background in inked with contrasting values of black or gray or, in rare instances, with light touches of pigment.
Jakuchu was acquainted with the noted Obaku priest Baisao Ko Yugai (1675-1763) and the prominent Bunjin painter Ike Taiga. He associated with Obaku monks Hakujun Shoko (1695-1776) and Monchu Jofuku (1739-1829) and Taiga's wife, the Bunjin painter Ike Gyokuran. Jakuchu was ranked third in the artist category of the 1768 edition of "Heian Jimbutsushi," and second only to top-rated Maruyama Okyo in the 1792 edition.
When Jakuchu was about sixty years old, he began an ambitious project that was to preoccupy him for the next six or seven years. A panoramic arrangement of crudely executed stone carvings inspried by traditional Buddhist iconic subjects, it was laid out on a hilly incline behind an Obaku temple named the Sekiho-ji, close to the village of Fukakusa, south of Kyot. Popularly known simply as the "Five Hundred Arhats," a title that suggests the multiplicity of the images, the group included significant incidents from the life of the Buddha, as well as depictions of the Arhats and other followers and disciples.
There is little specific biographical information about Jakuchu's activities during his sixties, but he probably spent a substantial amount of time at the Sekiho-ji. This portion of Jakuchu's life must have been idyllic, for he lived in a spiritually as well as creatively rewarding manner, pursuing his artistic projects at his leisure, and he was widely recognized as a prominent figure among the community of cultured men in Kyoto. However, when he was seventy-three years of age, a calamity changed his circumstances abruptly and drastically: a fire broke out, devastating the city. The Shin'enkan and the Ito family store, as well as other family-owned structures in the Nishiki neighborhood, were detroyed, presumably along with the family's material resources. The entire complex of the Shokoku-ji manastery, with the single exception of the Hodo (Dharma Hall), was leveled. Jakuchu was now forced to turn to his art for his livelihood. This adversity seems, however, to have stimulated him to greater, more conscientious productivity, and many of his most memorable works wre conceived in the following years.
In 1788, he went to visit the noted dilettante and literatus Kimura Kenkado in Osaka, and in 1790, when he was seventy-five years old, he completed a commission from a rich merchant named Yoshino Yosai Goun to execute a set of sliding screens for the Saifuku-ji. The screens are among his most celebrated creations. They are colorful depictions of animated roosters and hens and of large cactus plants, set off against a rich, unbroken background of gold leaf.
Jakuchu returned to Kyoto and fell ill after completing another set of screens, this time in monochrome, for the Kaiho-ji. Jakuchu had recovered to some degree by the following year and had settled into a comfortable routine at his residence at the Sekiho-ji. The last concerted project of his long career was carried out, quite appropriately, on behalf of the Sekiho-ji and consisted of a large number of circular paintings of lowers, trees, and other plants, executed on square panels of wood and installed in the ceiling of the Kannondo (Hall of the Bodhisattva Kannon). One of the panels is inscribed with his studio name, Beitoan, long with "age eight-eight," but he actually died when he was eighty-five years old; the number eighty-eight probably represents Jakuchu's hope that he would live on to that age, which is particularly propitious to the Japanese.
In the spring of 1800, commemorative services honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Jakuchu's friend the painter Ike Taige were held at the Sorin-ji in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. Jakuchu was in poor health and could not attend. He death occurred several months later, and funeral services were held at the Sekiho-ji, where his remains were interred.
--Hickman, M. The Paintings of Jakuchu (1989)

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