The Dutch merchants who were allowed to remain in Japan from 1638 were crowded onto a small, artifical island in Nagasaki Bay, known as Dejima (出島). For the next two centuries, until Japan became more open in the Meiji period, after 1853, those Dutch traders were the only conduit between Japan and Europe.
Again, history was fortuitous. At that time the Netherlands was socially, scientifically and artistically rich, and developing rapidly. Books on medicine, optical instruments, and works of art were all brought from Holland to Japan. Some were presents given in tribute to safeguard the future of Dutch trade, and all had significant influence on Japan and its art.
In 1720, the eighth shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, undertook the Kyōho Reforms, which among other things permitted the limited importation of Western books, leading to pockets of Western learning or rangaku developing in Nagasaki and the major cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (now Tokyo). Western medicine, particularly the study of anatomy and dissection, was introduced, together with other Western sciences.
Western prints inspired Japanese artists to become more realist, as did visiting Chinese artists such as Yinyuan Longji, Shen Nanpin, and Sō Shigan. Increasingly realistic paintings of birds and flowers appeared from the hand of painters such as Sō Shiseki during the early 1700s. The latter’s influence extended through Hiraga Gennai, a devotee of rangaku, to Odano Naotake (小田野直武) (1749-80), who together with his lord and master Satake Shozan (佐竹 曙山) (1748-1785) founded the Akita Ranga (秋田蘭画) school of painting.
Odano Naotake’s Shinobazu Pond (不忍池) (Edo, 1770s) is startlingly Western and modern in its appearance. The flowers in the foreground follow in the tradition passed on from Sō Shiseki, but the pond and background landscape are projected using linear perspective, with the sky and water rendered realistically, including reflections on the surface of the pond. Shadows, both those indicating the form of the tree and pots in the foreground, and those cast by the pots, are also shown realistically.
Modern analysis has attributed the background landscape in this type of painting as being modelled after Western prints, which would have been available to Naotake and Shozan. However few of these are likely to have shown as much detail – particularly reflections and cast shadows – as the paintings made by the Akita artists.
Naotake’s painting of a classical view of Mount Fuji (Edo, 1770s) similarly conforms to every expectation in Western realism, down to the effects of a rippled water surface on reflections.
Fewer of Satake Shozan’s paintings have survived, but his Pine Tree and Parakeet (絹本著色松に唐鳥図) (Edo, 1700s) is an accomplished and thoroughly realist example. Shozan also wrote the earliest known essays in Japanese on Western art and art theory, in which he proposed Western realism as being preferable, and listed many pigments and other materials which were presumably derived from Dutch imports. He copied three views of a female nude from a Dutch book into his sketchbook too, but does not appear to have attempted to draw his own figures from life.
Odano Naotake, Satake Shozan and Satake Yoshimi 佐竹義躬 (1749-1800) formed this school far from the Dutch enclave at Nagasaki, in what is now Akita in the north of Honshu island, where Satake Shozan had copper mines. However it was short-lived, and did not leave any lasting successors after the early deaths of first Odano Naotake then Satake Shozan. Satake Yoshimi and two of his retainers did keep the new style going for a little longer, but by the early 1800s it had been largely forgotten. However Western and realist influences lived on further south in Japan.
Maruyama Ōkyo (円山 応挙 or 圓山 應舉) (1733-1795) studied art from China and Western sources when he trained in Kyoto, leading him to found the realist Maruyama school of painting. His The Journey of Narihira to the East (Edo, 1780) is considerably less realist, but a bold step on the road towards a more Western style. This attracted criticism from others at the time, who felt that he was too concerned with physical appearances, but his work was popular with clients.
Ōkyo also created woodblock prints, such as this, Ishiyama-dera (Edo, before 1795), which were more accepted as megane-e (see below). He may also have been the first Japanese painter to draw nude models from life, but he did not paint nudes, and his drawings were not displayed.
Ishikawa Tairo and Ishikawa Moko, who were enthusiasts for rangaku, copied this from an original by Van Royen, which had apparently been imported by the Dutch traders.
Shiba Kōkan (司馬 江漢) (1747-1818) was another enthusiast for rangaku whose contacts with Hiraga Gennai brought him into contact with the same realist and Western influences which had resulted in Akita ranga. After initial studies in the Kanō school, Kōkan transferred to Sō Shiseki, but earned his living from print-making. He made the first copperplate etching by a Japanese artist, A View of Mimeguri Shrine from the Sumida River (Edo, 1783), which became popular megane-e, to be seen in a special optical viewer in order to enhance its 3D effect.
Later Kōkan experimented with the first oil paints to be produced in Japan, termed rōga, which he used for several Western-style paintings on silk supports. He used perilla as the drying oil, boiling it with with lead oxide to accelerate its drying, as documented by Satake Shozan. However it did not have the creamy consistency associated with European oil paints, and was usually applied thinly, similar to more traditional Japanese glue-based colours. Man on a Pier and Dutch Woman beneath a Tree (both Edo, 1790) were painted as a pair, with strongly European motifs.
His later works, such as Asukayama (Edo, c 1800), are better integrations of Japanese motifs depicted using Western techniques and materials. Kōkan also published a treatise on Western art in 1799.
Aōdō Denzen (1748-1822) started his working life as a dyer, when his talents were spotted and he started to study painting under the literati school artist Tani Bunchō, and later under Shiba Kōkan. Denzen improved Kōkan’s technique for print-making, and developed his ranga painting too.
His Mount Asama Screen (Edo, 1804-1818) was made using perilla-based oil paints on paper, and is a skilful and subtle mixture of Western realist technique with a traditional motif and embellishments such as cloud.
This View of Ryōgoku (Edo, 1789-1818) again shows Denzen’s skill in getting the best out of both traditional and modern.
Western influence extended beyond the schools normally considered to have embraced it. The contemporary Watanabe Gentai (1749-1822), for example, in his A Retired Official’s Homecoming (Edo, c 1800), is more consistent in perspective, uses aerial perspective, and is generally more realist than his traditional predecessors.
There were other artists working in Nagasaki who employed Western style and techniques, such as Kawahara Keiga (川原慶賀), whose grand ‘world view’ of Nagasaki (Edo, 1820) could be mistaken for an earlier European landscape. My final painting is an unusual link to the second section of this article: by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) (1760–1849), who is much better known for his ukiyo-e woodblock prints, it shows Shell Gathering (Edo, 1800-49) in Western style.
Prints – uki-e and megane-e
Although it was the Dutch who introduced optical instruments and picture viewers to the Japanese, viewers became popular probably as a result of importation of products from China. By the middle of the 1700s they were being used to view prints, particularly megane-e, specially produced to have a novel deep 3D effect when so viewed. Timon Screech has detailed the radical changes which the introduction of Western optics brought about, not just in such popular forms of entertainment.
Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木 春信) (1724–1770) here shows a picture viewer in the late 1760s (there is some dispute as to whether the ‘girls’ are all that they seem: Timon Screech thinks not).
Okumura Masanobu (奥村 政信) (1686-1764) was one of the earlier specialists in this genre, at which time the rules of linear perspective were not always thoroughly implemented.
By the time that Utagawa Toyoharu (歌川 豊春) (1733-1814) became popular, megane-e and the related uki-e print-makers had mastered Western-style linear perspective.
Utagawa Toyoharu’s Grand Canal in Venice (Edo, c 1750) was probably copied from a Western print imported by the Dutch, itself made from a Canaletto or similar. Such Western views were also popular, but most prints showed scenes of Japan.
Other than Hokusai, the most famous print-maker of the era was probably Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) (1797–1858), whose prints were also exported from Japan to Europe. There they became the first Japanese works of art to be widely seen, and were the main influence for Japonisme in Impressionism and related movements.
It is this print by Hiroshige, Evening Rain at Azumi-no Mori (吾嬬杜夜雨) (Edo, 1837-8), which is now thought to have been influential in Vincent van Gogh’s Rain – Auvers (1890), as shown here.
Although very popular, prints including uki-e, megane-e and the most famous ukiyo-e were not considered to be fine art at the time, and Japanese art historians see them as primarily artisanal in nature. Despite this, from their appearance in Europe in the nineteenth century to today, they have been accepted as fine art; indeed for many Westerners they are are only Japanese visual art with which they are familiar, other than traditional painting.
There is a curious historical twist: European prints taken by the Dutch to Japan inspired Japanese woodblock prints, which were a key influence on most of the Impressionists, who in turn were the inspiration for Japanese painters who went to Europe to train in Western techniques at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My next article will examine what happened then, during the Westernisation which took place in the Meiji period, after 1868.
Further reading and references:
Johnson H (2005) Western Influences on Japanese Art. The Akita Ranga Art School and Foreign Books, Hotei Publishing. ISBN 978 9 074 82264 0.
Kang Duk-Hee (2008) Western-Style Painting in Japan. Adaptation and Assimilation, Sophia University Press. ISBN 978 4 324 08032 0.
Screech T (2002) The Lens within the Heart. The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan, University of Hawai’i Press. ISBN 978 0 824 82594 2.
Screech T (2012) Obtaining Images. Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 86189 814 2.