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The Kanō school (狩野派 Kanō-ha?) is one of the most famous schools of Japanese painting. The Kanō school of painting was the dominant style of painting from the late 15th century until the Meiji period which began in 1868, by which time the school had divided into many different branches. The Kanō family itself produced a string of major artists over several generations, to which large numbers of unrelated artists trained in workshops of the school can be added. Some artists married into the family and changed their names, and others were adopted. According to the historian of Japanese art Robert Treat Paine, "another family which in direct blood line produced so many men of genius... would be hard to find".
The school began by reflecting a renewed influence from Chinese painting, but developed a brightly coloured and firmly outlined style for large panels decorating the castles of the nobility which reflected distinctively Japanese traditions, while continuing to produce monochrome brush paintings in Chinese styles. It was supported by the Shogunate, effectively representing an official style of art, which "in the 18th century almost monopolized the teaching of painting". It drew on the Chinese tradition of literati painting by scholar-bureaucrats, but the Kanō painters were firmly professional artists, very generously paid if successful, who received a formal workshop training in the family workshop, in a similar way to European painters of the Renaissance or Baroque.They worked mainly for the nobility, shoguns and emperors, covering a wide range of styles, subjects and formats. Initially innovative, and largely responsible for the new types of painting of the Momoyama period (1573–1614), from the 17th century the artists of the school became increasingly conservative and academic in their approach.
The school was founded by the very long-lived Kanō Masanobu (1434–1530), who was
the son of Kagenobu, a samurai and amateur painter.Masanobu was a contemporary
of Sesshū (1420–1506), a leader of the revival of Chinese influence, who had
actually visited China in mid-career, in around 1467. Sesshū may have been a
student of Shūbun, recorded from about 1414 (as an apprentice) and 1465, another
key figure in the revival of Chinese idealist traditions in Japanese painting.
Masanobu began his career in Shūbun's style, and works are recorded between 1463
and 1493. He was appointed court artist to the Muromachi government, and his
works evidently included landscape ink wash paintings in a Chinese style, as
well as figure paintings and birds and flowers. Few works certainly from his
hand survive; they include a large screen with a crane in a snowy landscape in
the Shinju-an, a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji. Masanobu's Chinese-style Zhou
Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses in the Kyushu National Museum (illustrated left) is
a National Treasure of Japan.
Masanobu trained his sons Kanō Motonobu (1476–1559) and the younger Yukinobu (or Utanosuke). Motonobu is usually credited with establishing the school's distinctive technique and style, or rather different styles, which brought a firmer line and stronger outlines to paintings using Chinese conventions. Less interest was taken in subtle effects of atmospheric recession that in the Chinese models, and elements in the composition tend to be placed at the front of the picture space, often achieving decorative effects in a distinctively Japanese way. Motonobu married the daughter of Tosa Mitsunobu, the head of the Tosa school, which continued the classic Japanese yamato-e style of largely narrative and religious subjects, and Kanō paintings subsequently also included more traditional Japanese subjects typical of that school.
Kanō Eitoku (1543–1590), a grandson of Motonobu and probably his pupil, was the
most important painter of this generation, and is believed to have been the
first to use a gold-leaf background in large paintings. He appears to have been
the main figure in developing the new castle style, but while his importance is
fairly clear there are few if any certain attributions to him, especially to his
hand alone; in the larger works attributed to him he probably worked together
with one of more other artists of the school. Despite having two painter sons,
at the suggestion (if not the order) of the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Eitoku
adopted Kanō Sanraku (1561–1635), who married his daughter and succeeded him as
head of the school. Sanraku's works (two illustrated here) at their best combine
the forceful quality of Momoyama work with the tranquil depiction of nature and
more refined use of colour typical of the Edo period. When Sanraku had no son he
married Kano Sansetsu (1589–1651) to his daughter and adopted him. Sansetsu and
his school remained in Kyoto when most Kanō artists moved to Edo (often after a
summons from the shogun), and he continued to adhere to the brightly coloured
style of the Momoyama period. His son Einō painted in the same style, but is
better known for a biographical history of Japanese painting, which gave the
Kanō school pride of place.
The range of forms, styles and subjects that were established in the early 17th century continued to be developed and refined without major innovation for the next two centuries, and although the Kanō school was the most successful in Japan, the distinctions between the work of it and other schools tended to diminish, as all the schools worked in a range of styles and formats, making the attribution of unsigned works often unclear. The Kanō school split into different branches in Kyoto and the new capital of Edo, which had three for much of this period: the Kajibashi, Nakabashi and Kobikcho, named after their locations in Edo.
The last of the "three famous brushes" of the school, with Motonobu and Eitoku, was Kanō Tan'yū (originally named Morinobu, 1602–1674), who was recognised as an outstanding talent as a child, attending an audience with the shogun at the age of 10, and receiving a good official appointment in 1617. He was Eitoku's grandson through his second son Kanō Takanobu (1572–1618), also a significant painter; Tan'yū's brother Yasinobu was adopted into the main line of the family.Tan'yū headed the Kajibashi branch of the school in Edo and painted in many castles and the Imperial palace, in a less bold but extremely elegant style, which however tended to become stiff and academic in the hands of less-talented imitators. The best Kanō artists mostly continued to work for the nobility, with increasingly stultified versions of the style and subject-matter already established, but other Kanō-trained artists worked for the new urban merchant class, and in due course moved into the new form of the ukiyo-e print. Hiroshige is among the ukiyo-e artists whose work shows influence from the Kanō school. Despite the loss of official patronage with the Meiji period, artists continued to work in the Kanō style until the early 20th century. Kanō Shōsenin, who died in 1880, was a descendant of the main line of the family. One late follower of the school was Kanō Kazunobu (1816–1853), who adopted the name as a sign of his respect, and painted a series of large scrolls of the 500 Arhats which has recently received a revival of attention after being hidden away since World War II
Masters of Mercy", Smithsonian, Sackler Gallery. Online exhibition Masters of
Paine, Robert Treat, in: Paine, R. T. & Soper A, The Art and Architecture of Japan, Pelican History of Art, 3rd ed 1981, Penguin (now Yale History of Art), ISBN 0140561080
Watson, William, The Great Japan Exhibition: Art of the Edo Period 1600–1868, 1981, Royal Academy of Arts/Wiedenfield and Nicolson
Media related to Kano school paintings at Wikimedia Commons
Department of Asian Art. "The Kano School of Painting". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003
JANNUS / Kanouha
Momoyama, Japanese Art in the Age of Grandeur, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on the Kanō school
Bridge of dreams: the Mary Griggs Burke collection of Japanese art, a catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on this school