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Moving Movements, History of Modern Painting, Japanese Painting


Kano Sansetsu, 1589 - 1651, Old Prume Tree

click the thumbnails

Picture scroll of the Ishiyama
temple's histories No.7
by Tani Buncho

Screen Uji
Bridge,17th century

Screen Usumi Kiho (b. 1873)
The Raven and the Peacock

Old Japanese Screen

Chrysanthemums by a stream
with rocks

Sesshu Tojo
Haboku-Sansui, 1495

Fukurojin (Fukurokuju)
the God of Longevity and Wisdom
Ito Jakuchu, c. 1790

Waterfall and Monkeys
Shibata Zeshin, 1872
Meiji period

Screen Clouds

Mushasi Yoshitoshi

Full Moon

oude Japanse houtprint

oude Japanse houtprint


oude Japanse houtdruk

oude Japanse houtdruk

Nacht in Yoshiwara, 1819

The two Transcendents Gama and Tekkai,
years 1760

We have shown that the so called "evolution" of painting styles in Europe is a phenomenon connected with European culture. That evolution is a way of changing with two main features: more freedom for the artist and a greater diversity in general. Evolutions such as from photographically depicted to geometrical abstract, never existed. A few examples: Dali's extremely precise figurative works are from later date then Kandinsky's abstract. Turner painted partly or totally abstract a lot earlier, as did Moreau, long before impressionism started. The individual became more important than tradition and the artist did require a personal style. A certain painter does not always keep his style. Every painter working from his heart will show changes in his style, as he changes himself or by experimenting. Moreover artists influence each other, even when there is no copying, by seeing each others work or by personal meetings.

Soami, died 1525, Landscape of the four Seasons

Now we look to a totally different tradition outside Europe. We have chosen Japan because this land also has a huge past of paintings, with a great diversity. On the first place because of the richness of her culture, but also because the architecture with straight walls, screens and sliding doors asks for two-dimensional work. Also because of the writing in characters, which is much closer to visual art.
Japanese painting has also been classified, not in movements, but to dynasties: Nara in the years 710 to 794, Heian 794 to 1185, Kamakura 1185 to 1333, Nambokucho 1333 to 1392, Muromachi (ashikaga) 1392 to 1573, Momoyama 1573 to 1615, Edo (tokugawa) 1615 to 1868, and "modern": from 1868.
If we look at the Japanese painting from the beginning to the moment it copies European impressionism, we don't find any evolution from strictly prescribed painting to nature, towards totally free. What we do notice, is that in all periods there were painters with a very specific style. Some of them painted a lot more "free" and expressive then others, now matter in which period they lived: 17th, 18th or 19th century. Moreover: one and the same painter could paint very precise and true to nature, including traditional standards, and also make other works, very free and sketchy, with a limited number of lines. The materials used also play a part in this: the most expressive, most "modern" we find in paintings with ink on paper.

Soga Shohaku, 1730 - 1781, Four Sages of the Moutain Shang


The work "Four sages of the Mountain Shang" for instance, by Soga Shohaku (1730 - 1781) in ink and gold powder, is totally in the style of the future German expressionism, the faces included, mostly also painted with broad brush.
The Japanese painters also experimented and used several techniques, as for instance the future Max Ernst did in Europe: splashes for snow, rubbing ink out, printing things in paint on paper... Aquarelle paint and ink are media where one can do a lot with water. Some ink on very wet paper can give for example beautiful "landscapes" of pines in the mist.
Yamamoto Soke did put poems on his paintings, for example in "Cold Cherry Tree" (near 1706). Kano Sansetsu's "Cold Cherry Tree" (1589 - 1651) is a trunk on gold leafs, the tree itself is as an abstract painting, very expressive in form. On it blossoms are painted, true to nature but idealized.
Most landscapes and portraits of all artists are stylized in a very similar way. A face, for instance, is quite stereotyped with the same kind of precise contours, same kind of eyes, nose... There are differences however how they stylize.


The sea from Sotatsu (around 1640) is so stylised that the foamy edges form twisting, grisly lines. In between the waves are constructed with fine parallel lines, and spiralling lines to represent the swirling water. Above the waves is golden cloud, contoured with carbon black (as the "fumage" of Max Ernst). (Click on thumbnail underneath this paragraph.)
Figures can be so much stylized they become geometrical. The bridge on the screen of Ogata Korin for instance is a pure geometrical construction. An anonymous screen from the early 17th century, with bridge and willow, is almost completely geometrical, apart from a few stylized silhouettes. Also with portraits for the cloths geometric patterns are used, which emanates a strong expression. As "The Actor Ichikawa Danjuro" by Shunshô, or "The Actor Ichikawa Danjuro VII" (near 1830), with concentric squares. At "The actor Arashi Rikan II" by Hokuei (1831) the cloth is a pattern of two double squares, repeated on the background.

Screen by Katsu Jagyoku,
Pine and Plum Trees in Snowstorm, 1774

Screen by Ogata Korin,1658 - 1716,
Irises and Bridge

Screen by Sotatsu, died ca. 1640,
Waves at Matsushima


Print by Hiroshige,
Iris Garden at Horikiri,
1857, comparable to
the later Art Nouveau
in Europe

Print by Shunei,
The Actor Ichikawa,

Print by Kunisada,
(the person) Kan Shojo,

Shunsho, de Akteur Ishikawa Danjuro, op de scène Shibaraku

The stylization of figures didn't left any room for the way portraits were painted as in Europe. The individual features were most recognized in cloths and headdress, nevertheless the painters succeeded in putting a lot of expression in their portraits. In that way Kunisada increased the expression in his work "The Person Kan Shojo" (1815) by a game of very fine, assembling lines as well as thick, whimsical ones; also by means of the colours black, grey, red and a touch of green and mainly by the red striped face with a cherry blossom between the teeth. (Click on thumbnail above this paragraph.) The "Second Patriarch Zen in Contemplation" by K'o Shin is at the other hand painted with some brief brush strokes. The print "Night in Yoshiwara" (1819), also by Kunisada, is painted in a mood comparable with the houses in the evening with lighted windows by Degrouve-Denunques, Watts or the house with the lantern by Magritte. The sharp perspective and the lots of vertical lines at the other hand remind de Chirico. (Click the thumbnail on the right.) Surrealism in Japanese art was restricted to often gruesome ghosts or mythical animals, such as dragons or phoenixes.

Jakuchu, Den, Kerselaar en kraanvogel, ca. 1763

In the work of one single Japanese painter we can often find different styles, reminding western movements. Jakuchu for instance painted fine, stylized nature scenes, as his "White Cherry Blossoms" (1755): twisting branches and many white spots. On another panel we can easily recognise a little bird on whimsical pine trees. It is difficult to describe the style of "Pine, Cherry Tree and Cranel" (ca. 1763), the trees are ribbed ink stripes, the bird is a large balloon with a little head. His "Arhat" or "Banana Trees and Haha-cho" (1759) are very expressionistic. He also painted bamboo on screens: vertical long stripes and small brush strokes. His "Two Transcendents Gama and Tekkai" (years 1760) are expressive and surrealistic (click thumbnail right colon), "Maize and peas" from near 1700 are precisely drawn and reminds our art nouveau.
So a lot of our "modern" styles or style elements are to find in Japanese painting, long before they took over our western movements and techniques. Abstract art is the only movement which is difficult to find in the old Japanese paintings and prints. (In the right colon is an exception!) But we can find it often on cloths, a cloth can be a beautiful abstract work on its own. Some paintings, such as cloths on a clothesline look as an excuse to make an abstract painting, without being untrue to the standards of figuration. See for example the thumbnail
on top of Shunei: the abstract pattern is depicted frontal, as if a human body didn't have any volume and perspective.

Also compare this surrealistic works: the Italian painter Arcimboldo (16th century) and an old Japanese wood print "People make a fool of me" (hito a baka ni shita hito da). (Click the thumbnails.)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Vertemnus 1591

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Bibliotecario 1566

Hito a baka ni shita hito
Ichiyusai Kuniyoshic. 1848

Copyright for the text of all pages of this History of Modern Painting: Johan Framhout; text written in 1990-92; revisionned and put on the internet in 2005; translation in English 2012

Some examples of modern Chinese painting (we could not find names of artists nor dates) click the thumbs

Moryi, 1998
Jiang Guofang, Palace door
Li Sy Hanh
Hongde Jiang
Yangshu Jidi
Xing Jianjian
Hiratsuka Yuji