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Japanese Paintings

Item # 67934 - Listening - Kiku - Japanese traditional scroll - Sold for $750 - 4/7/2016
"Kiku". Beauty in kimono is playing a violin. She is smiling and listening intently to the delicate sound of violin. Her facial features are in the style of the late Edo - early Meiji period.
The Japanese word for listening is "kiku". The interesting detail is that the flowers embroidered in obi sash are chrysanthemums. The Japanese word for chrysanthemum is also "kiku.
The depiction of women in kimono playing western musical instruments in Nihon-ga painting is extremely rare and was considered daring, very modern in early Meiji era.

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The art of Japanese painting is full of mesmerizing Asian charm when you look at it from a purely decorative view. But it is also a subject that can be a bit confusing for novices when you want to learn more about it. Different painting schools and styles, a variety of different media, the deep roots in Zen Buddhism and the use of specific terms from the Japanese language make this art form not always easily accessible for Westerners.

To understand Japanese painting, one should know that it has always been torn between three mainstreams movements - Chinese, Japanese and Western.

History of Japanese Painting

As nearly all forms of art, early painting had been under the influence of the Chinese culture. By and by, new and specifically Japanese styles were developed and painting schools were established. Each school practized their own style. But the Chinese influence remained strong until the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). There is a general term to describe painting in Japanese style - yamato-e.

After the opening of Japan to the West under the Meiji period (1868-1912), the early years were marked by an exaggerated embracing of Western art. The newly founded universities established departments for Western art, called Western academic artists into the country as teachers and sent out students to study art in Europe - mainly in France and Italy.

Hand in hand with a rising nationalism, the pendulum soon went back into the other direction. The public opinion began to recognize the richness of the old tradition and even condemned Western art.

The twentieth century was marked by cooperation. Art colleges offer departments for both Japanese and Western painting styles.

Painting Schools and Styles


Japanese painters used a wide variety of media over the centuries. The only one you will not find until the late nineteenth century, is the Western media of the framed canvas.

The mainstream media used by traditional Japanese painters were:


Japanese paintings may evoke an association with landscapes and natural scenes drawn with a few genial brush strokes. The impression may come from the majority of the scroll paintings that are to be found in galleries and museums. But it is only a part of the story.

Painting subjects were as diverse as we know it from Japanese prints. And of course each of the media used had its own preferred main focus. Some rather popular subjects were:

Japanese Painting Glossary

Sources used for this article

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura