Japanese painting has a very rich history; its tradition is vast, while Japan’s unique position in the world largely influenced the dominant styles and techniques of Japanese artists. It is a well-known fact that Japan was quite isolated for centuries – it was not only because of geography but also because of the dominant Japanese cultural inclination towards isolation that marked the country’s history. During the centuries of the existence of what we might call “Japanese civilization”, culture and art were developing separately from those in the rest of the world. And that is even visible in Japanese painting practices. Nihonga paintings, for example, are one of the main products of the Japanese painting practice. It is based on traditions over a thousand years old and the paintings are usually executed on washi (Japanese paper) or eginu (silk), using brushes.
However, Japanese art and painting were influenced by foreign artistic practices as well. First, it was Chinese art in the 16th Century and Chinese painting and Chinese arts tradition which was especially influential at a number of points. As of the 17th Century, Japanese painting was also influenced by Western traditions. Particularly, in the Pre-War period that lasted from 1868 until 1945, Japanese painting was heavily influenced by Impressionism and European romanticism. At the same time, new European art movements were also significantly influenced by Japanese art practices. This influence is called Japonism in history of art, and it was particularly influential for Impressionists, Cubists and those artists related with Art Nouveau.
The long history of Japanese painting can be understood as a synthesis of several traditions that make parts of the recognizable Japanese aesthetics. First of all, Buddhist art and painting techniques, as well as religious painting, left significant mark to the aesthetics of Japanese paintings; ink-wash painting of landscapes in the Chinese literati painting tradition is another important element recognizable in many famous Japanese paintings; the painting of animals and plants, especially birds and flowers is something that is usually related to Japanese compositions, but also landscape and scenes from every-day life as well. Finally, a large influence on Japanese painting has had ancient ideas of beauty from the philosophy and culture of Ancient Japan. Wabi, which means transient and stark beauty, sabi (the beauty of natural patina and aging) and yūgen (profound grace and subtlety) are still influential ideals in Japanese painting practices.
Finally, if we focus on picking the ten most famous Japanese masterpieces, we have to mention ukiyo-e, which is one of the most popular art genres in Japan, even though it refers to printmaking. It dominated Japanese art from the 17th through 19th centuries, while the artists belonging to this genre produced woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, but also scenes from history and folk tales, travel scenes and landscapes, flora and fauna, and even erotica.
It’s always a challenge to make a list of best paintings from some art tradition. Many amazing artworks will be excluded; however, this list presents the ten most recognizable Japanese paintings in the world. In this article, only those paintings created from the 19th Century until today will be presented.
Editors’ Tip: The Art and Technique of Sumi-e Japanese Ink Painting: Japanese ink painting as taught by Ukao Uchiyama
Japanese painting has an extremely rich history. Throughout the centuries, Japanese artists developed a large number of unique techniques and styles that represent the most valuable Japanese contribution to the world of art. One of these techniques is Sumi-e. Sumi-e literally means "ink picture," combines calligraphy and ink-painting to produce brush painting compositions of rare beauty. This beauty is paradoxical-ancient but modern, simple but complex, bold but subdued-no doubt reflecting the arts spiritual basis in Zen Buddhism. Buddhist priests brought the ink stick and the bamboo-handled brush to Japan from China in the sixth century, and over the past fourteen centuries, Japan has developed a rich heritage of ink-painting.
One of the most recognizable Japanese paintings is The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife. It was executed in 1814 by famous artist Hokusai. If we follow strict definitions, this amazing Hokusai’s piece could not be considered as a painting, since it’s a woodcut design of the ukiyo-e genre from the book Kinoe no Komatsu, which is a three-volume book of shunga erotica. The composition depicts a young ama diver entwined sexually with a pair of octopuses. This Japanese painting was quite influential in the 19th and 20th Century. The work has influenced later artists such as Félicien Rops, Auguste Rodin, Louis Aucoc, Fernand Khnopff, and Pablo Picasso.
Tomioka Tessai is a pseudonym for a famous Japanese artist and calligrapher. He is regarded as the last major artist in the Bunjinga tradition and one of the first major artists of the Nihonga style. Bunjinga tradition was s a school of Japanese painting which flourished in the late Edo period among artists who considered themselves literati, or intellectuals. Each of these Japanese artists, including Tessai developed their own style and technique, but all of them were great admirers of Chinese art and culture.
Fujishima Takeji was a Japanese painter, noted for his work in developing Romanticism and Impressionist art within the yōga (Western-style) art movement in late 19th- and early 20th-century Japanese painting. In 1905, he traveled to France, where he was influenced by French movements of that time, particularly by Impressionism, which can be seen in his painting Sunrise over the Eastern Sea that was executed in 1932.
Kitagawa Utamaro was a prominent Japanese artist and painter who was born in 1753 and died in 1806. He is certainly best-known for his series entitled Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy, A Collection of Reigning Beauties, Great Love Themes of Classical Poetry (sometimes called Women in Love containing individual prints such as Revealed Love and Pensive Love). He is one of the most important Japanese artists who belong to the ukiyo-e genre of woodblock prints.
Kawanabe Kyosai was one of the most prominent Japanese artists of the Edo period. His art was influenced by the work of Tohaku, a Kano artist of the sixteenth century who was the only artist of his period to paint screens entirely in ink on a delicate background of powdered gold. Although Kyosai is best-known as caricaturist, he created some of the most notable paintings in the Japanese history of art of the 19th Century. Tiger is one of these paintings where Kyosai used watercolor and ink to create this picture.
Hiroshi Yoshida is known as one of the most important figures of the shin-hanga style (shin-hanga was an art movement in early 20th-century Japan, during the Taishō and Shōwa periods, that revitalized traditional ukiyo-e art rooted in the Edo and Meiji periods (17th–19th century). He was trained in the Western oil painting tradition, which was adopted in Japan during the Meiji period.
Takashi Murakami is probably the most popular Japanese artists today. His works are being sold for astronomical prices at big auctions, while his art has been already inspiring the whole new generations of artists, not only in Japan, but internationally. Murakami’s art encompasses a wide range of mediums and is generally described as superflat. His work has been noted for its use of color, incorporation of motifs from Japanese traditional and popular culture. The content of his paintings is often described as “cute,” “psychedelic,” or “satirical”.
Yayoi Kusama is also one of the most renowned contemporary Japanese artists. She creates in a variety of different media, including painting, collage, scat sculpture, performance, environmental and installation art, most of which exhibit her thematic interest in psychedelic colors, repetition and pattern. One of the most renowned series by this great artist is Pumpkin series. Covered in polka dots in a rich yellow color, the iconic pumpkin is presented against a background of nets. When coupled, all such elements form a visual language that is unmistakable to the artist’s style, and has been evolved and perfected through decades of painstaking production and reproduction.
Tenmyouya Hisashi is contemporary Japanese artist, who is best-known for his "Neo-Nihonga" paintings. He participated in the revival of the old Japanese painting tradition, and it represents an antithesis to a modern Japanese-style painting. In 2000, he also created his new style "Butouha" which shows the resistant attitude for authoritative art system through his paintings. Japanese Spirit No. 14 was created as part of the "BASARA" art scheme, interpreted in Japanese culture as a rebellious behavior of lower-class aristocracy during the Warring States Period to deny authority in pursuit of an ideal lifestyle by dressing in magnificent and luxurious costumes and acting in free will, did not match their social class identities.
Finally, The Great Wave off Kanagawa is probably the most recognizable Japanese painting ever made. It’s actually the most prominent piece of art “made in Japan”. It depicts an enormous wave threatening boats off the coast of the prefecture of Kanagawa. While sometimes assumed to be a tsunami, the wave is, as the picture’s title suggests, more likely to be a large rogue wave. The painting is executed in the tradition of ukiyo-e.
All Images used for illustrative purposes only.