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Four Hundred Years of the Kano School

The Kano school served as painters-in-attendance to the shoguns, military rulers who lavishly decorated their castles with symbols of power and prestige. Its unique training system instilled in successive generations of artists the techniques and imagery that set the aesthetic standards of their age, forming a common visual language for Japanese painting that still resonates today.

To protect the artwork in this exhibition from prolonged light exposure, most will be changed out every four weeks.

Laying the Foundation

Just as European culture has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, Japanese culture was greatly influenced by Chinese civilization. In Japan, Chinese learning in the form of Confucianism helped the shoguns establish an ideology of rule that was distinct from the emperor and the aristocracy that reigned in Kyoto. Kano paintings that borrowed from Chinese art—both its subjects and its style—expressed the shoguns’ authority.

Tan’yū: Great Master of the Kano

Tan’yū (1602–1674) was perhaps the greatest Kano artist. The first official painter-in-attendance to the Tokugawa shoguns, he participated in the decoration of Nijō Castle and oversaw the expansion and refurbishing of Nagoya Castle. His work encompasses a variety of themes and styles, ranging from monumental, gold-leaf compositions on sliding doors to intimate and subtle ink paintings on handscrolls.

Popular Themes in Kano Paintings

Among the favorite subjects of the Kano and their patrons were figures from Chinese stories, such as the Queen Mother of the West. Landscapes were also in great demand, both as expressions of nature’s beauty and as a vehicle for favored subjects. As Japan is an island nation, it is not surprising that Kano artists also drew inspiration from the sea. Kano painters explored these themes in various styles and formats, including hanging scrolls, folding screens, sliding doors, handscrolls, and printed books.

Patrons and Mount Fuji

The Kano cultivated patrons beyond the shoguns, including the imperial court, temples, and the merchant elite. In addition to the studio established by Tan’yū in Edo, the Kano maintained workshops in Kyoto, the seat of the emperor and the city where the lineage first began. Tan’yū frequently commuted between Edo and Kyoto along the Eastern Sea Route, taking in the impressive view of Mount Fuji. He painted Mount Fuji more than twenty-five times, in effect making it the symbol for all Japan.

The Power of Ink and Gold

Kano ink-and-gold screens and sliding doors served as visual symbols of the shoguns’ power and wealth. The shoguns vied to make their supremacy tangible by building great castles and decorating them with elaborate Kano paintings. These monumental compositions often featured life-size lions, tigers, and eagles, as well as lavish use of gold leaf and rich pigments. They were usually displayed in the public spaces of castles, where visitors would be awed by the magnificence and grandeur of their surroundings.

Studying the Ancient Masters

The Kano made albums to preserve the work of earlier artists and to make it available for copying. The most important album created by Tan’yū, Studies of Ancient Masters, features his copies of works by seventy-seven renowned Chinese and Japanese painters as well as an original final image of Mount Fuji by Tan’yū himself. In compiling the album, Tan’yū paid homage to his predecessors and announced that he considered himself worthy of inclusion in their lineage.

Expansion of the Kano School

The Kano school continued to expand from the late seventeenth to mid-nineteenth century in both Edo and Kyoto. While there were four Kano studios in Edo in the direct service of the shoguns, artists working in the Kyoto studios considered themselves closer to the culture of this imperial capital. Their subjects often included court-related themes, such as traditional court music and dance or classical Japanese poetry, exemplified by the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets.

The Kano Revival

In 1867 the Tokugawa shogunate came to an end, and with it, the major source of patronage for Kano artists. With the restoration of imperial rule under the Meiji emperor, the former shogunal capital of Edo was renamed Tokyo. Japan began to emerge from nearly 300 years of highly restricted diplomacy and trade that had largely isolated it from the rest of the world. Embarking on an ambitious modernization program, Japan’s new government promoted the nation’s industries and art at world’s fairs, including the Philadelphia 1876 Centennial Exhibition.