Itō Jakuchū (伊藤若冲, 1716-1800) was a painter known for his almost surrealist, detailed depictions of exotic birds and fowl. He also painted traditional Japanese motifs and experimented with perspectives and other modern stylistic elements. He was the eldest of the three Edo-era "eccentrics" and is also considered to be the most serious of them. His eccentricity was not so much based upon 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 sensuous experience that an ordinary man would seek did not at all attract him. All the wealth, profit, and success that dazzle the people of this capital he ignored. He did not even cast one glance at them. By nature he would prefer to be alone, exhausting himself all day long in painting. Thirty years of immersion in painting was to him like one full day.
Translation by Yoshiaki Shimizu

To pursue his ambitions as a painter Jakuchū relinquished the management of the family business to his brother in 1755. It was in that period that 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 on 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 to work on a set of 30 large hanging scrolls as a votive offering to the Shōkokuji which were 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.

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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)

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