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

Artists of the modern age

In 1868, the Japanese emperor was restored as the supreme authority of Japan after centuries of warrior rule. The name of the capital of Edo was changed to Tokyo, and the new government was eager to remove the last vestiges of the feudal system in an effort to ‘catch-up’ to the West economically and militarily. The government tried to determine the best way to achieve progress and foster a proud identity unique to Japan, and quickly succeeded in moving the nation towards becoming a world power.

To fill the need for a more democratic training, the art world at this time was overwhelmed with a profusion of art schools and societies. An important link between the premodern Edo period and the Meiji era was the Joun-sha (Cloud-like Society) of Kyoto, active from 1866 into the early twentieth century. Its members included artists from many of the well-established painting schools such as the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijō, Mori and Tosa schools. Of the artists represented in this exhibition, Morikawa Sobun [EA1973.128] and Suzuki Shōnen [EA1965.133] were founding members. The group held major gatherings and art exhibitions beginning in earnest in the 1870s, thereby defining the meaning of Japanese painting in a swiftly changing society. The Joun-sha was less exclusionary than the individual school-based juku (studios) of the late Edo period, yet not as inclusive as the later Tokyo and Kyoto painting schools.

The artists of the Meiji period whose works are in the Ashmolean’s collection, namely Sobun, Shōnen and Watanabe Seitei [EA1993.13] were trained in the traditional painting studios in which the master-student relationship reigned. But how did the artists’ style change from the Edo to the Meiji period? Most of the artists featured in this section are of the first two generations after the Meiji restoration and, as Ellen Conant notes, were initially more interested in their survival as artists than in experimenting with new styles [1]. The paintings of their maturity, however, express the flexibility of this training to respond to modern art movements. The many international expositions in which these artists participated were encouraged by the government as it was a way for Japan to display unique products and break into foreign markets. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878, the 1873 Vienna World Exposition and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 featured a growing number of Japanese exhibits. Not only their artwork, but the artists themselves were ambassadors to the West. Seitei, two of whose works are featured here, was the first artist of the period to spend time studying in Europe.

One of the defining organizations of the Meiji period, the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School was based in part on a proposal by the Joun-sha members to the governor of Kyoto. The forty-three initial appointees in 1880 included Kunii Ōbun and Morikawa Sobun. The school comprised of four sections: East (Yamato-e and shasei), West (watercolour and oil painting), North (Kano school tradition) and South (Nanga). The founding of this school paralleled the establishment of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1887. In the same year, the new Japan Art Association established by Ernest Fennollosa (1853-1908), Okakura Kakuzō (Tenshin) (1862-1913) and others provided a place for artists of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts to continue their education. Yokoyama Taikan, whose Lake in the Rain [EA1964.196] is included in this volume, was active at both of these institutions as a student and instructor.

Taikan was instrumental in defining a new Japanese aesthetic in relation to the West, and is therefore seen as the quintessential Nihonga painter. Nihonga refers to Japanese-style painting that used traditional pigments and formats, defined in opposition to yōga or Western-style oil painting in the Meiji period. Prior to World War II, Nihonga artists, and Taikan in particular, struck a chord with the patriotism engendered by an increasingly militaristic regime by painting nostalgic Japanese subjects albeit with revolutionary techniques.

[obj]EA1973.128[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.a[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.aa[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.ab[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.ac[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.ad[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.b[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.c[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.d[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.e[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.f[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.g[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.h[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.i[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.j[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.k[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.l[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.m[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.n[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.o[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.p[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.q[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.r[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.s[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.t[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.u[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.v[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.w[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.x[/obj]   [obj]EA1973.128.y[/obj]
[obj]EA1973.128.z[/obj]   [obj]EA1996.130[/obj]   [obj]EA1993.13[/obj]
[obj]EA1965.133[/obj]   [obj]EA1964.196[/obj]


[1] Ellen P. Conant, 'Tradition in transition, 1868-1890' in Ellen P. Conant, Nihonga, Transcending the Past: Japanese-style Painting, 1868-1968 (St Louis, MO: Saint Louis Art Museum; Tokyo; Japan Foundation, 1995), 15.


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