Itō Jakuchū. Greengrocer, eccentric painter & Zen Buddhist koji. Influential and revered, he retired to a temple and his followers were still evolving his style 70 years he died.
During the mid-Edo period of 1603-1867, Japan sealed itself off from the world outside and was ruled by the Tokugawa, a feudal military shogunate of samurai. The shoganate forged a stronghold over the 300 regional daimyō, feudal lords with vast hereditary land holdings. This made for 250 years of stability, a time of economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policy, a happy populace and peace. This led to the rise of an affluent middle class and the flowering of several divergent schools of painting.
With all outside influence eliminated, Japan was an island in the art world and its art evolved from new feelings toward old traditions and an intense awareness and love of nature. Japan’s elite artisans now plied their art untainted by the outside world. With consummate craft and bountiful imagination.
One of these artists left a lasting impression. Born in 1716, a Kyoto greengrocer’s son named Jakuchū (伊藤 若冲), became a singular figure of this time. The city of Kyoto was home to three eccentric and independent artists who, free of any artistic movement in particular, each created a totally unique personal style. They became known as The 3 Eccentrics. Compared to the other two Eccentrics of the mid-Edo period eccentric painters, Itō Jakuchū, the eldest, is said to have been calm, restrained and professional. Whilst being an artist with strong Zen Buddhist ideals, a koji (a lay brother), he was also acutely aware of his role within a Kyoto society that was becoming increasingly prosperous and commercial.
According to his monk-poet mentor, as a young man Jakuchū disliked studying and was a terrible calligrapher but did however, show a talent for painting. After his father’s death, Jakuchū inherited the family greengrocery business and ran it for 15 years. During this time he became a devout Zen Buddhist. It was not until the age of forty that he handed over the family business to his brother and dedicated himself entirely to painting. Much of his subject matter was traditionally Japanese; chickens, swallows, parrots, cranes and other birds, various fish and flowers. But Jakuchū’s choice of subject matter was where tradition ended. Everything else about his work was agressively progressive, ambitiously experimental and modern. It looked like nothing else in Japan at the time.
In addition to personal commissions, Jakuchū was commissioned to paint panels or screens for Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines across Japan. Despite his commercial success, Jakuchū lived the life of a bunjin, a literary intellectual. He was friends with many notable bunjin, went on journeys with them, and was influenced by their artistic styles. His unique style was a result of a combination of this bunjin influence, experiments with Western materials and perspective, Chinese techniques and his relentless creative drive.
Despite his individualism and involvement in the scholarly and artistic community of Kyoto, Jakuchū was always strongly religious. He retired to Sekihō-ji, a Manpuku-ji branch temple of the Ōbaku Zen sect on the southern outskirts of Kyoto.