This is a religious image from the Zen Buddhist tradition. Much of the figure painting in Japan is found in Zen imagery, particularly figures painted with ink in the Chinese fashion. This Buddhist sect emphasizes self discovery of religious truth of existence through meditation and various disciplines designed to break through mundane consciousness. Although some Zen figural images are of the Buddha and of important teachers, there is also a group of unorthodox characters who, having grasped the underlying truth, can laugh and sing and be carefree in this world. Societal authority no longer controls their lives.
Jittoku (known as Shide in China) was such a legendary figure. An orphaned child who was found and brought up in a Zen monastery, he was employed in the kitchen where his duties including sweeping. Legend has it that there was also a reclusive poet named Kanzan (Hanshan) living nearby in a cave who often came to the monastery kitchen for left-over rice. Kanzan and Jittoku became fast friends as they enjoyed each other's free spirit and delight in the humor of life. Kanzan and Jittoku are often depicted together; Jittoku with his broom, with which he "sweeps away the dust of worry and trouble," Kanzan with a scroll of poetry in which resides the wisdom gained from "reading the book of nature."
Jittoku here is painted in the spontaneous Zen splashed-ink style. With speed and strength of brushwork the artist splashed pools of pale ink wash on the paper, then immediately added dark ink accents that blur with the wash to suggest Jittoku's clothing and body. With the tip of a brush the painter then went on to sketch in the feet, hands, face, and broom. This painting shows Jittoku in an unusual pose, holding his broom across his shoulders as he dances on one leg with his other knee pulled up. The resulting composition forms an inverted triangle which reinforces the motif of the unfettered spirit free of a life of rules and regulations. It is a Zen representation, turning upside down the structure of orthodox religious images which often form upward-pointing triangles to reflect the hierarchical, pyramid-shaped structure of society in general and religious institutions in particular.
The painting bears the seal but no signature of Kano Tanyu (1602-74), a prodigious painter who was chosen to paint for the shogun when he was only 14 years old. Tanyu mastered a number of styles and painted everything from small scrolls to vast schemes for the walls of palace rooms. He also made carefully identified sketches of most of the paintings he had seen and been asked to authenticate. These sketchbooks are invaluable records for art historians today.