Despite being appointed professor of landscape painting in Turin, the Italian painter Antonio Fontanesi (1818-82) would have been entirely forgettable for his art. In the middle of the nineteenth century, he tried to make a reputation for himself in Geneva, London and Florence, but commissions remained infrequent.
Then in 1876 he moved to Tokyo, where he was foreign advisor to the city’s new Technical Fine Arts School, and helped start Japan’s Meiji Renaissance, a transformation of Japanese art and architecture. Although he only stayed there for two years, being forced to return to Italy in 1878 due to serious illness, his influence lasted for decades. This weekend’s two articles show what he brought about.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, painting in Japan had evolved only slowly over the previous four centuries from the Kanō school of the late Muromachi period (1400s).
By that time, painting had moved out of the monasteries, and Kanō Masanobu (狩野 正信) (c 1434-1530) founded his school, which was to remain dominant until the Meiji period. His Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses (周茂叔愛蓮図 (しゅうもしゅくあいれんず)) (Muromachi, 1400s) is typical of what many people would consider to be classical Japanese painting.
From 1543 until 1638, when European traders were active and spread elements of Western art and culture in Japan, oil paints were introduced and European styles were adopted by some Japanese painters. But following the unsuccessful Christian-led rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate in 1638, the country was largely isolated, apart from a single point of contact in Nagasaki where Dutch traders were still tolerated.
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 gave way to the Meiji period in 1868, and with it the Japanese government drove increasing Westernisation in trade, sciences, culture, and arts. Fontanesi was appointed 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.
Although the Meiji marked great change, traditional painting didn’t disappear: more conservative painters such as Hidaka Tetsuō (1791-1871) retained much older style in works such as Snowy Landscape (Meiji, 1869).
Hagura Katei’s (1799-1887) Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden (Meji, 1882) is another example of this late flowering of what remains in essence the Kanō school from the late 1400s. At this time in Europe Impressionism was at its height.
Initially apprenticed to Kanō Tōtei in the traditional Kanō School, Takahashi Yuichi (高橋由一) (1828-1894) 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.
Trained first in the Nanga style, Yamamoto Hōsui (山本芳翠)（1850－1906) 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 works is a twelve-painting series depicting signs of the Zodiac, of which ten survive. 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), which developed into the Tenshin Dōjō when Kuroda Seiki came to teach in it.
Asai Chū (浅井 忠) (1856-1907) 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, meaning resin, from the darker glazing used. 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 lived in the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, south of Paris, as had Kuroda Seiki ten years earlier. When there he painted Washing Place in Grez-sur-Loing (1901) above, and Bridge in Grez-sur-Loing (1902), below.
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.
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.