Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum

A catalogue of the Ashmolean's collection of Japanese paintings by Janice Katz (published Oxford, 2003).

Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum by Janice Katz

The ‘Japanese’ schools: Yamato-e, its revival, Rimpa, and Ukiyo-e

Though the majority of Japanese paintings in the Ashmolean Museum are by artists of the Maruyama/Shijō and Nanga schools, as discussed in the previous sections, some of the most noteworthy paintings in the collection fall outside of these traditions. The artists treated in this section can be termed painters of the ‘Japanese’ schools, as their subject matter and painting style ultimately hark back to Japan's golden age of court painting, the Heian period. This time in Japanese history marks the development and promotion of native modes of calligraphy (kana), poetry (waka) and architecture (shinden tsukuri) that distinguished themselves from those inspired by predominantly Chinese examples. While the influence of China was still keenly felt, it was the first time that a distinctly Japanese means of expression was consciously developed in these arts. Works painted by court artists of the Edoko-ro (academy of painters) produced what is known as Yamato-e (lit. pictures of Yamato, or Japan). This painting style, popular among the Fujiwara nobles, featured the ceremonies of the court, the native scenery, the seasons, waka poetry or fictional court narratives. The National Treasure Tale of Genji handscroll dating from the first half of the twelfth century was created at this time. Its gem-like colours, carefully described gestures and dramatic architectural elements combine to give the images a strong emotional impact that still resonates with viewers today.

In the Edo period, several strains of Yamato-e were thriving simultaneously. It is difficult to lay out a clear explanation of the emergence and subsequent nourishing of each, as the proliferation of styles in the Edo period was not confined by school or geographical boundaries. For our purposes here, however, a brief mention of the historical circumstances of each school or group is in order.

The inheritors of the legacy of the earliest court painters were the Tosa school artists who painted for the imperial court in Kyoto from the fifteenth century. These artists specialised in small format works that utilised bright mineral pigments and a generous amount of gold. Their subjects were historical events, fictional court tales and poetry of the Heian and Kamakura periods. In the Edo period, such works appealed not only to the sequestered courtiers in Kyoto, but also to wealthy Kyoto merchants and the shogunate in Edo, who were both interested in adopting the rich imperial cultural history for themselves as markers of status.

The Tale of Genji album [EA1965.69] in the Ashmolean’s collection, dateable to the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, appears to be the product of a Tosa school studio or a studio with access to Tosa school models. It was probably made for a wedding, and would have been included in the bride’s trousseau. In the album, twelve miniature paintings illustrate scenes from the tale in splendid detail. The calligraphy pages are poems based on the five virtues of filial piety (gojō) by premier calligraphers of the age. The poems, meant to instruct, are a fitting accompaniment to the Genji scenes, as the tale was upheld as a moral guidebook for women in Edo period society. Also included in this section is a single scene from the Akashi chapter of the Tale of Genji [EA1970.94] painted on small shikishi format paper that may have been intended for inclusion in such an album or to be pasted on a screen.

An offshoot of the Tosa school was the Sumiyoshi school, official painters to the shogun in Edo from the seventeenth century. The fan paintings by Sumiyoshi Hiroyuki [EAX.5400] and Hironaga [EAX.5378] demonstrate the appeal courtly tales and styles had for the shogun. However, even the most conservative Yamato-e painters such as the Sumiyoshi were not immune to the influences of the Maruyama/Shijō schools. One traditional technique of Yamato-e painters is called tsukuri-e (lit: ‘built-up’ picture), referring to the application of thick mineral pigments in layers as seen in the Tale of Genji album mentioned above. The flowing lines and translucent colours of Hironaga’s painting of Sei Shōnagon, however, shows that the Yamato-e style could not remain forever static.

The revolution in Yamato-e would be complete with the rise of the Fukko Yamato-e (Revived Yamato-e) painters such as Tanaka Totsugen. Totsugen himself studied with Tosa school artists Mitsusada and Mitsuzane, and was also trained in Kano school techniques and Chinese ink painting. He directly copied numerous works of the Heian and Kamakura period and revived the animated brushwork of these models. He and his fellow Fukko Yamato-e artists were loyal to the imperial cause which continued to gain adherents until the eventual overthrow of the shogun in 1867. The political leanings of this group of artists brought a new energy and urgency to the classical subjects of an imperial age gone by. The fan by Totsugen of the aristocrat Minamoto Yorimasa (1104-1180) [EAX.5425] in the Ashmolean is a work of the artist’s later years, when he was beginning to lose his sight, but is painted with great economy and skill.

Another strain of Yamato-e active in the nineteenth century was the Rimpa school of artists bound together by stylistic grounds rather than political ideology. The Rimpa school had its origins with the workshop of Tawaraya Sōtatsu in the seventeenth century, whose style was revived at different points and locations in subsequent centuries. Sōtatsu’s compositions often took classic tales as their subject, incorporating individual characters from Kamakura period handscrolls. After Sōtatsu. the compositions of one of Rimpa's most talented artists, Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716), were to impact the work of Sakai Hōitsu [EAX.5432] in Edo, and Nakamura Hōchū and Yoshimura Shūnan in Osaka. Hōitsu was the author of printed compendiums of Kōrin’s known works (Kōrin hyakuzu), as well as a study into the seals of his stylistic predecessors (Ogata ryū ryaku inpu). Nakamura Hōchū similarly revered Kōrin and based his own bold works on Kōrin's compositions, an example of which, Chrysanthemums [EAX.5417], is included in this volume. In his fan painting of the poet Kiyohara Motosuke [EAX.5443], Yoshimura Shūnan, an artist with origins in the Kano school, imitated Kōrin's design, thereby demonstrating the cross-fertilisation of schools and styles in the nineteenth century.

Workshops of machi-eshi (town painters) easily found customers for paintings in the Yamato-e manner throughout the Edo period. With a growing client base, the town painter working in the Yamato-e style expanded his subject matter and became a chronicler of the world around him, for example by producing guidebooks and views in and around Kyoto. The six-volume Record of Famous Sites of the Tōkaido Road [EA1959.85], included in this section, was probably the work of a town painter. Though the rendering of the figures is cursory, the pervasive use of gold and its lacquer container illustrate that this was not a work for popular consumption, like the printed travel guides, but was made for the enjoyment of a particular patron.

The last of the Yamato-e schools to be treated here is the Ukiyo-e (lit. pictures of the floating world) school. Following the town painters who were interested in depicting the world around them, Ukiyo-e was originally distinguished by its subject matter. Taking the vital new city of Edo’s Yoshiwara pleasure quarters and Kabuki stages as their main sources of inspiration, the Ukiyo-e artists painted the famous courtesans and actors of the day. An unsigned image of the pleasure quarters [EA1959.87] dating to the latter part of the seventeenth century gives us a view of the street life of the pleasure quarters complete with parading courtesans, customers hiding their faces, and musical and other delights in the back rooms. Towards the end of the Ukiyo-e tradition, Katsushika Hokusai’s Pilgrims at Kasuga Taisha Shrine [EAX.5361] relates the popular pastimes of the era outside of the Yoshiwara. In this case we get a humorous look at travellers of all walks of life on pilgrimage to a sacred site.

[obj]EA1970.94[/obj]   [obj]EA1965.69[/obj]   [obj]EAX.5400[/obj]
[obj]EAX.5378[/obj]   [obj]EAX.5425[/obj]   [obj]EAX.5417[/obj]
[obj]EAX.5443[/obj]   [obj]EAX.5432[/obj]   [obj]EA1959.85[/obj]
[obj]EA1959.85.i[/obj]   [obj]EA1959.85.ii[/obj]   [obj]EA1959.85.iii[/obj]
[obj]EA1959.85.iv[/obj]   [obj]EA1959.85.v[/obj]   [obj]EA1959.85.vi[/obj]
[obj]EA1959.87[/obj]   [obj]EAX.5361[/obj]   [obj]EAX.5587[/obj]

Object information may not accurately reflect the actual contents of the original publication, since our online objects contain current information held in our collections database. Click on 'buy this publication' to purchase printed versions of our online publications, where available, or contact the Jameel Study Centre to arrange access to books on our collections that are now out of print.

© 2013 University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum