In this well-known painting in a private collection in Japan, a hawk perches on the bizarre, grotesquely twisted trunk of an old plum tree in bloom on a riverbank. When the work was shown at Asia Society, New York, in 1989, catalogue authors Money Hickman and Sato Yasuhiro observed that while the hawk is traditionally a symbolic manifestation of the power of the military elite in Japan, Jakuchu's hawk might better be taken as a symbol of the lonely, eremitic artist, isolated from the demands of society.
This painting is considered to be a relatively early work, painted around 1753-54, when Jakuchu handed over the family's wholesale grocery business to his younger brother so that he could devote himself to painting; 1752 is the artist's earliest dated work. A point of comparison would be the Plum Tree in Moonlight dated 1755 in the Mary Griggs Burke Collection. In both, the tree is painted in ink with occasional touches of green for moss and dabs of brown for the hollow knobs; the blossoms sparkle in white gofun.
Jakuchu's hallmark is the balance of obsessive realism and witty abstraction, combined with dazzling technical virtuosity. The realism derives from his careful study of both Chinese models and imported Western books on botany and zoology. Abstraction is evident in this painting in the flattening of forms and the peculiar, mannered shapes created by the branches. To emphasize these shapes, a darker grey wash is brushed into the spaces between branches in the upper section.
It is known that Jakuchu labored over his paintings to bring out the brilliance of colorplay and composition. After the comprehensive Jakuchu exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum in 2000, the Oka studio in Kyoto remounted the famous set of thirty large hanging scrolls of flowers, birds and fish (Doshoku saie) begun in 1757, and now in the collection of the Imperial Household Agency. Removing all of the backing paper, Oka and his team discovered that the artist intentionally painted on the verso of the silk. This is a technique associated with Buddhist painting, and thus demonstrates the depth of the artist's technical study and facility. It also shows that he was interested in maximizing the expressive impact of the medium, not only to brighten colors, but to saturate them as well, thereby altering viewer perception of surface color through the application of other colors from the back. He also tried deepening the pictorial space by applying ink wash on both front and back surfaces. He used dots of gofun to pick out blossoms (or snowflakes, as the case may be) on both front and back, and to add luster to the white.