A pair of white-feathered peafowl, a male to the right and a female on the left, reveal different personas. As it flaunts its grand tail of gossamer-like feathers, a magnificent white peacock posed grandly on a rocky outcrop directly eyes the viewer. The peahen, much smaller in size and posed subordinately on the ground, looks across a nearly empty pictorial space at its mate.
In this example of Nihonga (modern “Japanese painting” using traditional techniques and pigments), we can detect more than two centuries of predecessors in bird-and-flower painting, including the Chinese-style works of the Nagasaki school founded by Shen Nanpin (ca. 1682–1780) and advocacy of naturalism by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) and his school. Gyokkei also inherited a penchant for meticulous brushwork from his training in the style passed down from his great-grandfather Mochizuki Gyokusen (1692–1755), who established a family studio that assimilated these strands of Japanese, Chinese, and Western painting styles.
The artist’s signature on the right mentions that the work was completed on a winter’s day in 1908. We know that Gyokkei created a number of nearly identical compositions after the rave reception for another version of White Peafowl, created in 1900 for the ninth exhibition of the Society for Japanese Painting (Nihon Kaiga Kyōkai), where it won second prize.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Birds in the Art of Japan," February 2, 2013–July 28, 2013.