This weekend, in this article and its conclusion tomorrow, I look at a relatively unknown but very special relationship in painting: that between Japan and Europe. On opposite sides of the globe, their cultures contrasting, and despite long periods of isolation, the two regions have significantly influenced one another’s art.
During Roman times, East Asia and Europe were connected by the Silk Road and other trade routes, but those were lost with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Contact was re-established in around 640 CE, and during the Mongol Empire between 1207-1360 trade flourished again, as documented by the Venetian Marco Polo. Sea routes between Europe and Japan were established before 1500 by expeditions led by Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.
The first Europeans set foot in Japan in 1543, as much of Europe was progressing to the late Renaissance. There was then a rapid development of trade, with Europeans selling muskets to arm the daimyo lords during the period of political instability at the end of the Muromachi period in Japan. Christian missionaries were also very active, led by the Jesuit Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549, and converted substantial numbers to Christianity.
By the end of the Muromachi period, Japanese painting had moved out of the monasteries in which it had begun, and Kanō Masanobu (狩野 正信) (c 1434-1530) founded the Kanō school, which was to remain dominant for the following four centuries, until the Meiji period.
Kanō Hideyori’s Maple Viewers (紙本著色観楓図) (Muromachi, early 1500s) shows extensive use of colour, but is still painted in the classical style of the Kanō school. Note how each motif incorporated into the painting is carefully separated using a mist or cloud bank, a popular device.
For almost a century, during a turbulent period of politics known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period, European trade and the spread of Christianity were accepted in Japan. Two types of painting arose as a result: religious works within Christian missions, and a novel secular genre in existing Japanese workshops.
Paintings by established traditional Japanese artists recorded the arrival and influence of the Europeans: Kang considers that about 60 have survived from the period of their production from 1593-1680. Because the Europeans were termed ‘Southern barbarians’ 南蛮人 namban-jin by the Japanese, this genre of Japanese art is known as namban or nanban (南蛮). Most examples of this genre are folding screens, namban byōbu (南蛮屏風), which can be quite spectacular. These were painted using the standard media of ink and colours, and sometimes gold leaf, on paper.
Kanō Naizen (狩野 内膳) (1570-1616) was an established master of the Kanō school when he painted this Namban Screen (Momoyama, c 1600). Like many others, it features a Western sailing ship in the sheltered waters of Nagasaki harbour, with a European crew on board. The quayside has other Europeans and trading goods, and there is a long pedestrian procession of Europeans and their attendants through Japanese dwellings and shops.
This detail shows some of the stereotypical features associated with these Southern barbarians, with moustaches and small beards, long pointed noses, hats, ruffs, and voluminous trousers. However, quite unusually for Kanō school paintings (and traditional Japanese painting as a whole), the faces are not flat areas of colour, and some shadows are shown in them, although as usual cast shadows are omitted throughout. There is no attempt to model the figures in more detail, and those of Japanese in the background are more traditional in appearance.
Other conventions of Western realism, such as sky and water detail, continued to be treated traditionally. So at least in these genre paintings, Japanese artists had altered their style.
Some of the screens which have survived are more puzzling. This anonymous work, Westerners Playing Music (Momoyama, c 1600), appears to have been composed of elements copied from Western paintings, and is remarkable for adopting quite a Western style, even if the sky is rendered using gold leaf. Experts consider these to be later works, which progressively include more non-Japanese content and locations.
This detail shows how Western are the techniques and style employed, with delicate shading and shadow in flesh, and folds in fabric which are modelled in a very European manner. The lute player here is a curiously popular figure: one of the surviving paintings attributed to Nobukata shows an almost identical musician, and there is a second screen containing essentially the same figures and landscapes too.
Other screens include world maps with miniatures showing the major cities of Europe, and an extraordinary composite showing the Battle of Lepanto (in 1571, a key victory to the Hispanic traders and missionaries) welded to a copy of Giulio Romano’s Battle of Zama, showing Hannibal’s elephants at war (in 202 BCE). Screech argues that this was a perfectly logical anachronism for a Japanese painter to create.
A final group of screens features regal and courtly European figures, such as Western Kings on Horseback (Momoyama, c 1600), which is attributed to Kanō Sanraku (狩野 山楽) (1559-1635), another Kanō master. This illustrates well how the Japanese artists of the day were able to mimic the elements of Western style, even showing some tentative cast shadows under the horses, but as they didn’t understand the projection necessary for European linear perspective, that was inevitably incorrect to some degree.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu was installed as Shōgun in 1603, all this started to unravel. At first Christians were oppressed, which led to an unsuccessful Christian-led rebellion in 1638. Faced with such insurrection, the Shōgun imposed a policy of isolation, sending almost all the Europeans packing, back to their trading posts and missions on the Chinese mainland, and in Macao. As Kang wrote, Western art didn’t take root in Japan, but “the first stage of Western-style painting shared the same fate of Christianity in Japan, rising for a time and then fading away.”
But not quite: although the Catholic traders and missionaries were expelled, Japan wasn’t entirely isolated. A peninsula in the bay of Nagasaki was separated from the mainland by digging a canal, and Dutch merchants were allowed to remain there, their vessels (and those of the Chinese) still permitted to use Nagasaki port. They were responsible for the second period of Westernisation. The Dutch merchants who were allowed to remain in Japan were crowded onto that 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 flourishing in its Golden Age. Books on medicine, optical instruments, and works of art were all brought from the Netherlands 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.
European 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 hands 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.
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. Although his Journey of Narihira to the East (Edo, 1780) was painted using traditional ink and colours on silk, it has features which are much closer to those of Western watercolours. However he still used formed outlines, foliage is more symbolic than actual, shadows are largely absent, and the water surface is depicted more symbolically.
Other artists and critics of the day disapproved of this realist style, saying that it was too concerned with physical appearances, but it proved commercially successful. It has also been claimed that Ōkyo was the first Japanese painter to draw nude models from life, although he did not paint nudes and it would be more than a century before the first nude painting went on display in Japan.
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.
Although the Dutch 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.
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’s 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), painted just a few days before the artist’s death.
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 the only Japanese visual art with which they are familiar, other than traditional painting.
In 1853, a fleet of American ships arrived in Tokyo Bay, and soon Japan opened up once again to the West, which is the starting point for the next article.
Minoru Harada (1974) Meiji Western Painting, Arts of Japan vol 6, Weatherhill/Shibundo. ISBN 0 8348 2708 5.
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.