Western realist style and techniques had been developing gradually in Japan as a result of Dutch traders at Nagasaki providing books, prints, and paintings.
Then in 1853, a fleet of American ships appeared in Tokyo Bay, and within a few years Japan was opening up to Western influence. The Tokugawa dynasty, which had ruled and maintained relative isolation for over two centuries, gave way to the Meiji period in 1868, and with it the Japanese government drove increasing Westernisation in trade, sciences, culture, and arts.
The latter decades of the 1800s saw the rise to prominence of several painters who adopted thoroughly Western style and techniques, and official support for them through the engagement by the government of the Italian painter Antonio Fontanesi (1818-82), to bring Western drawing and painting to Japan. These artists are termed yōga, and contrasted with those who maintained more traditional techniques, the nihonga.
Paradoxically, nihonga art also enjoyed government sponsorship, and the active support of the American art historian Ernest F Fenollosa (1853-1908), who helped found the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. An enthusiast for traditional Japanese art, Fenollosa was a major influence on Western appreciation of Japanese art, and was at least partly responsible for the suppression of yōga painting in the West and the enduring popularity of Ukiyo-e prints.
Takahashi Yuichi (高橋由一) (1828-1894)
Initially apprenticed to Kanō Tōtei in the traditional Kanō School, he was inspired by Western-style prints, and studied under the English amateur artist Charles Wirgman (1835-91), who had been the Japanese Correspondent for the Illustrated London News in Yokohama since 1859. Soon after the Meiji restoration, he was made a professor of art at the new Technical Art School, where he became an assistant to Fontanesi, as well as his pupil.
This painting of Shinobazu Pond (不忍池) (c 1880), already an established motif in ranga, shows his meticulous realism at its best. His best-known work is probably a still life showing a salmon on a fishmonger’s hook.
Yamamoto Hōsui (山本芳翠)（1850－1906)
Trained first in the Nanga style, he was taught by Charles Wirgman, Fontanesi, and under Léon Gérôme in Paris. Altogether he lived in Paris for over a decade, where he painted several female nudes, such as Rafu (裸婦) (1880) above, and Nude Woman under the Moon (月下の裸婦) (1882-6) below.
Among his most famous work is a twelve-painting series depicting signs of the Zodiac, of which ten remain in existence. This example shows the Ox, Altair (十二支のうち丑『牽牛星) (1892). He founded the Seikōkan academy in Edo (Tokyo); this developed into the Tenshin Dōjō when Kuroda Seiki came to teach in it.
Asai Chū (浅井 忠) (1856-1907)
He started training in Western oil painting techniques under Kunisawa Shinkurō (1847-77, who had been a pupil of the English John-Edgar Williams), then became a pupil of Fontanesi.
His early work, such as Vegetable Garden in Spring (1889), shows Fontanesi’s influence in being in Barbizon (or Macchiaioli) style; this became known as the ‘Northern School’ or yani (resin, from the darker glazing employed). He founded the first group of yōga painters, and was appointed professor at the forerunner of the Tokyo University of the Arts. Then in 1900 he went to Paris for two years to study Impressionist techniques.
When in France, he went to the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, south of Paris, as had Kuroda Seiki ten years earlier. Washing Place in Grez-sur-Loing (1901) above, and Bridge in Grez-sur-Loing (1902), below, were painted when he was there.
On his return to Japan he was appointed professor at what is now the Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, and founded the Kansai Arts Institute.
Viscount Kuroda Seiki (黒田 清輝) (Kuroda Kiyoteru) (1866-1924)
The son of a samurai in Kagoshima (in the far south-west of Japan), he moved to Tokyo, where he first learned English, then switched to French. He went to Paris in 1884 to study law, being supported by his brother-in-law, a member of the Japanese diplomatic mission in France. However after two years there, he changed to study painting in the atelier of Raphael Collin, where he met Kume Keiichirō, also a student of Collin’s; together they explored plein air painting. In 1890 he moved to the international artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, south of Paris.
Returning to Paris in 1893, he painted Morning Toilette (destroyed during World War Two), the first painting of a nude to be shown in public in Japan. He then went back to Japan, and started to paint Japanese subjects in his Impressionist style. By introducing impressionist light and colour to yōga painting, in what was known as ‘Southern School’ or murasaki (violet), he was a major influence in developing it from its Barbizon style. He transformed Yamamoto Hōsui’s Seikōkan academy into the Tenshin Dōjō.
Morning Toilette caused uproar when it was first exhibited in Kyoto in 1895, as did his other paintings shown at the yōga salon later that year. The following year, together with Kume Keiichirō, he formed a new group known as the Hakubakai (‘The White Horse Society’), to promote yōga painting in its thirteen exhibitions until it dissolved in 1911.
He was appointed director of a new department of Western Painting at the forerunner of Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
His triptych of nudes Wisdom Impression Sentiment (before 1898) won a silver medal at the International Exposition held in Paris in 1900, and in 1910 he was appointed an Imperial Court painter.
Kume Keiichirō (久米 桂一郎) (1866-1934)
Born in Saga (then known as Hizen) in the far west of Japan, he went to Paris, where he studied in the atelier of Raphael Collin alongside his friend Kuroda Seiki, and in the Académie Colarossi. He spent periods painting in Barcelona and Île-de-Bréhat.
He returned to Japan in 1893, where he worked with Kuroda and the Hakubakai to modernise Japanese painting, and was appointed a professor in Kuroda’s new department in Tokyo.
Fujishima Takeji (藤島 武二) (1867-1943)
Although he started to learn nihonga painting, he became attracted to yōga style, and became a pupil of Yamamoto Hōsui. Kuroda Seiki attracted him to teach at the Tokyo Art School, and he became a member of the Hakubakai. His style progressively diverged from that of Kuroda, and changed more markedly after he spent five years in France and Italy. When in France he studied under Fernand Cormon rather than Collin, then learned portraiture under Carolus-Duran in Rome, where he painted this well-known work, Black Fan (黒扇) (1908-9).
When he returned to Japan in 1910, he was appointed a professor at the Tokyo Art School, and was one of the first to receive the Order of Culture in recognition of his achievements.
Shigeru Aoki (青木 繁) (1882-1911)
Enrolled as a special student at the Tokyo Art School in 1900, he developed a Romantic style during his brief career, which ended in his death at the age of 28 from tuberculosis.
Paradise Under the Sea (わだつみのいろこの宮) (1907) is based on a legend from the Nihon Shoki, in which Yama Sachihiko, a hunter, borrows his brother’s fishing gear to go to sea. When he descends into the sea in search of a lost hook, he meets and marries Toyotama-hime, Princess of Rich Jewels. This painting depicts Yama Sachihiko (top) looking down from a sacred tree and falling in love with Toyotama-hime (left).
Gyoshu Hayami (速水 御舟) (1894-1935) was apprenticed in traditional painting techniques at the age of 15, and his talent was quickly recognised. He became a founding member of the Japan Fine Arts Academy, which was restricted to nihonga style. Village in Shugakuin (1918) shows his skills working in traditional ink and color on silk.
Later in his career he became more realist, and even tended towards Symbolism before his sudden death from typhoid fever at the age of only 40.
Hirafuku Hyakusui (1877-1933), the son of a nihonga painter, trained at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, where he retained that style, even to the end of his career in Haruyama (1933).
At the end of the nineteenth century there had been bitter political battles between the two factions, with the vociferous Fenollosa standing firm in his support for nihonga style. Official reconciliation came in the form of the Bunten in 1907, which contained nihonga and yōga sections, and sculpture. More radical modernists felt that the Bunten had halted the pace of progress, and in 1914 they formed Nikakai to support their avant garde.
Internally, Japanese art historians such as Dōshin Satō recognise the importance of yōga painting, and to a degree its appearance marks the start of art history in Japan. However in the West the situation remains that extolled by Fenollosa, in which the only representation of art in Japan since 1800 is that of Ukiyo-e, and yōga painting is ignored as being of no interest.
Is it not time to put Fenollosa’s ill-informed prejudices behind us?
Minoru Harada (1974) Meiji Western Painting, Arts of Japan vol 6, Weatherhill/Shibundo. ISBN 0 8348 2708 5.
Dōshin Satō tr Hiroshi Nara (1999, 2011) Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State. The Politics of Beauty, the Getty Research Institute. ISBN 978 1 606 06059 9.
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.
There are a few affordable Japanese accounts of some of these artists, including a small collection of paintings by Kuroda Seiki, published by Shinchosha (1997), ISBN 978 4 10 601547 2. However the entire book – even the dates – are in Japanese script.