Rooster and Hen

Late 18th Century
Itō Jakuchū (伊藤若冲), 1716-1800

Format, Size: Hanging scroll, ink on paper, 29 x 104 cm
Seals: (Top, square intaglio)
(Bottom, round relief) Jakuchū-koji (若冲居士)

Considered one of the three great “Eccentrics” of 18th Century Japanese painters, Jakuchū infused Nan’Pin-style naturalistic depiction with a new vitality and animism no-doubt inspired by the Ōbaku Zen sect to which he faithfully devoted himself as “koji”, or lay disciple. Although he is most well-known for his large-scale, minutely detailed polychrome paintings of plants and animals on silk, he also executed a large number of monochrome masterpieces in ink. The animals in his ink paintings took on an even greater individuality, as each creature’s essential spirit was distilled into a minimal number of brushstrokes.

Jakuchū was especially fond of painting chickens, which he is widely believed to have raised himself, observing them at length at his residence. In this painting from the last years of his life, Jakuchū depicts a rooster in a comical pose, standing on one foot and looking directly at the viewer, while a wide-eyed hen gazes up at him. Jakuchū’s chickens were often imbued with a simultaneous regality and quirky awkwardness, true to the species’ character in nature.

Although simple at first glance, the painting contains a broad variety of technically complex brush techniques and achieves an overall aesthetic balance not easily imitated. The outline of the hen’s body, for example, is painted with a mere two brushstrokes, while her feathers are executed in an intricate technique in which the absorbent quality of the gasenshi paper is exploited to create delicate areas of light in between juxtaposed layers of darker ink. The overall level of skill, originality, and vitality of the painting distinguishes it from the many works done by Jakuchū’s disciples late in his life.