"The more I stare at nature, the more I move away from aspects such as form and am overcome by a strange inspiration."
1 of 7
Tsuchida Bakusen
"All I want to do is convey the nuances of my own way of painting Nihonga (just as I would in speaking Japanese)."
2 of 7
Mise Natsunosuke
"I am just a country painter with no political or financial power. And yet, I struggle and protest. The giants that appear in my paintings maybe evil itself, here to destroy everything in sight, or perhaps saviors who will help build a new future)."
3 of 7
Mise Natsunosuke
"My interest in painting ghosts comes from a long, lost tradition in Japan that has almost disappeared...to use demons to control demons."
4 of 7
Fuyuko Matsui
"...images act as talismans..."
5 of 7
Fuyuko Matsui
"My intention is to dig down to the depth and moreover, to grip Japan."
6 of 7
Hisashi Tenmyouya
"I thought about the various older drawing schools, the techniques that were used. We should go back to them. That's true Japanese painting. So I called it 'neo-Japanese' painting.'"
7 of 7
Hisashi Tenmyouya

Summary of Nihonga

Nihonga developed as an art movement in direct response to the transformation of Japanese society during the Meiji Period. As Japan opened its trade borders for the first time in over two centuries, a push toward modernity occurred in all sectors of the country's society. Nihonga artists, though, felt the need to preserve the heritage of classical Japanese painting and techniques resulting in a reinvigoration of the form that paid homage to the past while updating it for the newly sophisticated times of global exposure and artistic influence.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • While based on Japanese painting traditions over a thousand years old, the term Nihonga was coined to differentiate such works from Western style paintings, or Yōga, which had simultaneously risen as a major art movement.
  • The motivation for adopting a more modern Japanese style was largely spurred by artists and educators who wanted to combat Japan's adoption of Western artistic styles and techniques by emphasizing the importance and beauty of native Japanese traditional arts.
  • Not merely extending the older Japanese painting traditions into a modern idiom, Nihonga artists also broadened the range of subjects portrayed, and used stylistic and technical elements from a wide range of traditional schools so that the lines of distinction were minimized and Nihonga became a wide and all-encompassing umbrella for classic Japanese art.
  • Despite early resistance, Nihonga artists eventually incorporated elements of Western influence like naturalism and perspective into their work while remaining true to the ideals of historical Japanese art, materials, and techniques.
  • Throughout its history, Japanese art has been marked by artistic periods dominated by foreign influence followed by periods that emphasized only the Japanese style of painting. This pendulum in artistic influences reflects Japanese society's overall approach to the outside world, yet Nihonga remains a dominant and highly regarded art movement that continues to this day.

Overview of Nihonga

Nihonga Image

Japanese painting emerged in the mid-seventh century during the Nara Period (710-794). It was largely influenced by the arrival of Chinese sumi ink painting and inspired by work of the Tang dynasty. In the subsequent Heian Period, yamato-e, or Japanese style painting, developed in emaki-mono, or works on long hand scrolls. This became known as the classic Japanese style. The most famous example was the Genji Monogatari Emaki (c. 1130), which portrayed scenes from the first novel ever written, a classic of Japanese culture called Tale of the Genji (before 1021).

Do Not Miss

Important Art and Artists of Nihonga

Hibo Kannon (c. 1883)

Artist: Kanō Hōgai

This signature work depicts Kannon, an androgynous Japanese god who embodied loving compassion, and who was called Kuan-Yin by the Chinese and Avaklokitesvara by the Buddhists. The figure, standing on a cloud, fills the upper right of the painting and looks down upon a child floating in an orb who looks back, returning his gaze. The overall effect is of graceful harmony, accentuated by the swirling forms of the clouds, the folds of Kannon's robes, the red coil that like an umbilical cord wraps around the child, and reaches down into the depths of rocks. The halos of the two figures create a kind of visual diagonal between lower left and upper right, emphasizing the connection between the two as sacred sources of illumination, further emphasized by the subtle oval that extends upward from Kannon's feet, like a wide beam of light. The precise lines of the painting ground the subject within a space that could be in the sky looking down upon the rocky pinnacle of a mountain, underwater in a golden sea, or, as if in inner contemplation, looking into the Pure Land of Buddhism.

Hōgai used the Kanô School's traditional mineral pigment and ink on a gold background to convey a traditional subject, but his treatment is innovative. By including the child, he depicted Kannon untraditionally, perhaps influenced by the Western depiction of the Madonna, and wanting to create an image that would appeal to both Asian and European audiences. He also adopted a more realistic treatment of the figures, with shading to create a sense of depth. A reproduction of the painting was included in an early issue of Kokka, and the painting was prominently exhibited at the 1883 Paris Salon to critical acclaim. It became one of the artist's most favored works, and he was to make a second version for Tokyo University of the Arts where it has been designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. The art historian Chelsea Foxwell noted that Hogai's work exemplified "a break from the past while at the same time upholding a connection to it."

Dragon Against Tiger (1899)

Artist: Hashimoto Gahō

This painting on silk focuses on the encounter between a powerful tiger, standing on a rocky crag, and a dragon that energetically takes form in serpentine curls borne of the clouds. A contrast between the elements of earth and air is conveyed, as the sold forms of the jagged rocks echo the lines of the crouching tiger and the dragon's fluid arabesques swirl up like white, golden tinged flames. The work is also equally divided between the two creatures, both mythical symbols of Japanese culture, the tiger often associated with earthly kings and the dragon with the Emperor of Heaven. Only the white foaming encroachment of waves cast up by the dragon upon the rocks breaks the almost equal symmetry between the two realms, suggesting the primacy of heaven.

Gahō's work drew upon the Kanô tradition's frequent depictions of two powerful and symbolic creatures connected to the concepts of ruler ship, and the use of strongly outlined forms. Nonetheless, he also adopted Western elements, as shown in the naturalistic treatment of the tiger, and the work's depth, as seen in the distance that opens behind the dramatic scene, its negative space informed by a sense of Western atmospherics. Influenced by European Realism, his work made a convincing argument to later artists that such elements incorporated into Nihonga made the traditional style all the more compelling. As art critic Michael Sullivan wrote. Gahō's "brilliant synthesis of Kano style and technique with Western realism created a model for painters at an early stage in the Nihonga movement."

Ochiba (Fallen Leaves) (1909)

Artist: Shunsō Hishida

Each of these images depicts a six paneled byobu, or folding screen, a traditional Japanese format for painting landscape. Usually these two panels are shown together, as an intended pair, and the panel in the upper image is displayed on the right. In the top image, a small pine stands to the left of the curving trunks and branches of a small grove. The bottom image holds a sapling topped with a profusion of gold and brown leaves on the left with a grove of sparsely spaced trees behind it. In both images the russet and gold leaves that have fallen in the foreground create horizontal movement around the base of the trees, drawing the viewer's eye to the space that opens into the distance. Precisely rendered, the groves are diffused with a glowing light that creates the atmospherics of the autumnal season.

To achieve the work's luminosity, the artist used the karabake technique of dripping pigment onto an already wet surface, and then worked the pigment with a dry brush. The technique, evolved from classical sumi ink painting and calligraphy, allowed the artist to create a thin but radiant layer of color. Overall, this work exemplified Hishida's later style of luminous naturalism.

Useful Resources on Nihonga

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Nihonga Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 08 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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