Japanese painting has a charm of its own, with the artists developing their own styles over the centuries. If we’re interested in art, Japanese culture, history, or all of these, we should definitely read up on the great historical artists of Japan.
One might say that culture and tradition are ingrained in Japanese artistic expressions, which include techniques such as the ukiyo-e and sumi-e paintings. The first of these is a genre consisting of prints and paintings done with wooden blocks. The second is a form of ink wash painting. Both styles are famed throughout the world. Tattoo was also a popular form of art for traditional people in Japan, especially for the Ainu women. Learn more about it in our article, What Are Traditional Ainu Tattoos?
However, the two most well-known schools in the history of Japanese painting are probably the Rimpa and Kano Schools. They’ve given us many artists to admire right up to this day. Let’s now look at some of the greatest painters from Japanese history; the knowledge will help us appreciate the different schools and styles in this genre:
This Japanese artist was active back in the 15th century and was inspired by the Chinese Song Dynasty masters. These included figures such as Ma Yuan and Xia Gui. His studies and practice were invaluable for creating a uniquely Japanese style for the country’s painters.
This artist is usually credited with the founding of the ink wash or sumi-e painting style. In addition to developing it, he also promoted this technique until it eventually became the national style during his time. Shubun tutored many students as well, with some great names among his charges. These include Kano Masanobu and Sesshu Toyo, with the former founding the Kano school of Japanese painting.
There are several of Shubiun’s masterpieces still around today, with some of the most famous names including ‘Reading in a Bamboo Grove’, ‘Landscape of the Four Seasons’, and the ‘Oxherding Series’. If we get inspired by such great works of art, here’s how to get started with painting ourselves.
Sesshu Toyo’s lifespan was from around 1420 to 1506. In this time, he achieved a respectable position in Japan and China. He’s usually hailed as one of the best exponents of sumi-e painting, having studied under TennshoShubun himself. Like his master, Toyo also gained inspiration from the Chinese Song Dynasty paintings. However, he gave this style a Japanese character of his own.
Toyo’s style featured a higher contrast, a flatter effect, and generally thicker lines than others. To date, there have been several artists who have tried to mimic his style as much as possible. There are also several legends about this Japanese artist; for example, he was once tied to a pillar as a punishment for disobedience. When his teachers came back, they found that he had managed to draw a picture of a mouse with nothing but his tears. There are also some interesting stories behind famous paintings, so you might want to check those out.
While Toyo’s masterpiece is usually said to be the Sansui Chokan (Long Scroll of Landscapes), he is also famed for other works such as ‘Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma’ and ‘View of Ama-no-Hashidate’.
This artist lived from 1543 to 1590, which is quite a short span as compared to others here. His name will tell us that he’s the founder of the Kano school of painting, which was dominant in Japan from the 15th to the 19th century. The popularity of this artist in his time was quite widespread, resulting in him getting several wealthy patrons. With this investment, he could maintain his school to the fullest.
The masterpiece creation of this artist is a Cypress screen with around 8 panels. This is an emblem of the Monoyama painting style, a technique that Eitoku is credited with developing.
Ogata Korin’s lifespan was from 1658 to 1716. He is hailed as being among the top painters within the Rimpaschool. While he shunned the usual conventions of Japanese painting such as naturalism, Korin was renowned for his own unique style. He followed a flat design, some idealized but simple forms, and bold impressionism for most of his works.
The painting that brings together all these elements in a most perfect manner is called ‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’. Some other well-know works by this great includes ‘Waves at Matsushima’, ‘Irises screen’ and ‘Chrysanthemums’.
TomiokaTessai (1837 – 1924) started out as a bunjuna practitioner, which is also known as literati painting. He was the last of the greats in this particular movement. However, he later went with the Nihonga style, which is more in line with traditional Japanese techniques and artistic conventions.
While Tessai shunned most of the Western influences that affected so many artists of his time, he has some unique characteristics of his own. These include bold brushstrokes, bright colors, and compositions on a grand scale. His works range to around 20,000 in number, which is quite impressive. While he was a popular artist during his lifetime, he only became an icon posthumously.
Hasegawa Tohaku (1539 – 1610) founded the Hasegawa school, though he himself started his studies in the Kano school. After developing his own style and gaining inspiration from Sesshu Toyo, he is famed as being among the greatest Japanese artists in his period. In fact, he and his rival, Kano Eitoku, both share this privilege.
Tohaku also calls himself the fifth successor of Sesshu Toyo, and is renowned for his beautiful, elegant works in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. His masterpieces such as ‘Pine Trees’ and ‘Maple’ are now preserved as Japanese treasures.
If you have any paintings of your own, you might want to preserve them for the long term as well. Here’s what you can do to preserve and care for your paintings.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806)is among some of the most famous ukiyo-e painters. He’s generally known throughout Japan for his portraits of females. However, he was also able to portray the subtle aspects of his subject’s personality as well as the transient moods. Moreover, his unique dealing of light and shade with partial views led to his influencing many European artists in the Impressionism movement.
This artist was most active in the early 17th century and is also hailed as a co-found of the famous Rimpaschool along with Koetsu. He is most famous for developing the tarashikomi technique, which involves dropping colors into each other. Moreover, Sotatsu also came up with a monochrome painting style with ink used like paint.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) is generally hailed as being the greatest ever master of ukiyo-e painting, which is done with woodblocks. His fame is international and probably more than most other Asian artists. In fact, this artist is known by around 30 names throughout the world.
However, Hokusai’s most iconic works came about after he reached the age of 60. To date, his works have influenced several painters from the West, including Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir.
This artist’s greatest masterpiece is arguably ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. However, his other works are also famous, including ‘A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces’ and ‘Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji’.
Takashi Murakami was born in 1962, which makes him a fairly recent artist on this list. As a young artist, Murakami was very concerned about how Japanese contemporary art has inculcated so many Western trends. He’s since pointed out the conventional use of two-dimensional drawings in manga and anime instead of the 3-D animations so often courted by the Western world.
Eventually, Murakami founded the superflat art movement. This is now an important post-war movement. Murakami himself is hailed as the ‘Andy Warhol of the East’ and is the most renowned current Japanese sculptor and painter. His most famous works include ‘Smooth Nightmare’, ‘My Lonesome Cowboy’. and ‘Tan Tan Bo’.
These artists have shown the beauty of Japan in their work, just like Bonseki does with sand and rocks. How Does Bonseki Capture the Essence of Japanese Landscapes looks at how this art makes mini versions of nature’s big scenes.
Japanese artists have certainly played an important role in history and still continue to do so. While there’s a noticeable lack of female historical Japanese artists, this probably has more to do with their traditions and culture than a question of talent. Finding out more about these artists as well as some possible female counterparts might be a worthwhile project. The Japanese, particularly their indigenous people, also incorporate art into their clothing. To learn more about this, you may read our article, How Does Ainu Clothing Reflect the Unique Culture of Japan’s Indigenous People?