With the introduction of the Chinese writing system (kanji), Chinese modes of governmental administration and with the introduction of Buddhism in the Asuka period, many art works were imported into Japan from China and local copies in similar styles began to be produced.
With the spread of Buddhism in 6th and 7th century Japan, painting of religious imagery flourished to decorate the numerous temples erected by the ruling classes. However, Nara period Japan was more especially way more strongly characterized by the art of sculpture, rather than painting.
The earliest surviving paintings from this period include the murals on the walls of the temple of Horyu-ji in Ikaruga, Nara, illustrating episodes from the life of Buddha, the Bodhisattvas, and various minor deities. The style is reminiscent of Chinese paintings from the Sui dynasty or the late Sixteen Kingdoms period. However, by the mid-Nara period, paintings in the style of the Tang dynasty became very popular. These also include the wall murals in the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, dating from around 700 AD. This style evolved into the (Kara-e) genre, which remained popular through the early Heian period.
As most of the paintings in the Nara periods are religious in nature, the vast majority are by anonymous artists. A large collection of Nara period art is preserved at the Shosoin storehouse, formerly owned by Todai-ji, and now under the control of the Imperial Household Agency.Buddhist sects of Shingon and Tendai in 8th and 9th century Japan, religious imagery, most notably painted Mandala, became predominant. Numerous versions of Mandala, especially the Diamond Realm Mandala and the Womb Realm Mandala, were created as hanging scrolls, and also as murals on the walls of temples. A noted early example is at the five-story pagoda of Daigo-ji, a temple south of Kyoto.
With the continuing evolution of Japanese Buddhism towards the Pure Land forms of the Jodo sect in the 10th century, and important new genre was added: the raigozu, which depicts the Buddha Amida arriving to welcome the souls of the faithful to his Western Paradise. A noted early example dating from 1053 exists at the Byodo-in, temple in Uji, Kyoto. This is also considered one early example of Yamato-e Japanese-style painting, which contains representations of the scenery around Kyoto.
By the mid-Heian period, the (kara-e) Chinese style of painting had lost ground to Yamato-e which were initially used primarily for sliding screens and byōbu folding screens. However, Yamato-e also developed into new formats, (especially towards the end of the Heian period) including the emakimono hand scroll. Emakimono encompassed illustrated novels, such as the Genji Monogatari , historical works, such as the Ban Dainagon Ekotoba , and religious works. E-maki artists devised systems of pictorial conventions that convey visually the emotional content of each scene. The Genji Monogtari is organized into discreet episodes, whereas the more lively Ban Dainagon Ekotoba uses a continuous narrative illustration which emphasizes figures in active motion depicted in rapidly executed brush strokes and thin but vibrant colors. The Siege of the Sanjō Palace is another famous example of this style.
E-maki also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (Men's pictures) and onna-e (Women's pictures) styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e, on the other hand, often recorded historical events, particularly battles.
These genres continued on through Kamakura period Japan from 1180-1333. E-maki of various kinds continued to be produced; however, the Kamakura period was much more strongly characterized by the art of sculpture, rather than painting.
As most of the paintings in the Heian and Kamakura periods are religious in nature, the vast majority are by anonymous artists.
During the 14th century, the development of the great Zen monasteries in Kamakura and Kyoto had a major impact on the visual arts. Suibokuga, an austere monochrome style of ink painting introduced from Sung and Yuan dynasty China largely replaced the polychrome scroll paintings of the previous period, although some polychrome portraiture remained – primary in the form of chinso paintings of Zen monks.Typical of such painting is the depiction by the priest-painter Kao of the legendary monk Kensu (Hsien-tzu in Chinese) at the moment he achieved enlightenment. This type of painting was executed with quick brush strokes and a minimum of detail.
'Catching a Catfish with a Gourd' (located at Taizo-in, Myoshin-ji, Kyoto), by the priest-painter Josetsu, marks a turning point in Muromachi painting. In the foreground a man is depicted on the bank of a stream holding a small gourd and looking at a large slithery catfish. Mist fills the middle ground, and the background, mountains appear to be far in the distance. It is generally assumed that the "new style" of the painting, executed about 1413, refers to a more Chinese sense of deep space within the picture plane
By the end of the 14th century, monochrome landscape paintings (sansuiga) had found patronage by the ruling Ashikaga family and was the preferred genre among Zen painters, gradually evolving from its Chinese roots to a more Japanese style.
The foremost artists of the Muromachi period are the priest-painters Shubun and Sesshu. Shubun, a monk at the Kyoto temple of Shokoku-ji, created in the painting 'Reading in a Bamboo Grove' a realistic landscape with deep recession into space. Sesshu, unlike most artists of the period, was able to journey to China and study Chinese painting at its source. 'The Long Handscroll' is one of Sesshu's most accomplished works, depicting a continuing landscape through the four seasons.
In the late Muromachi period, ink painting had migrated out of the Zen monasteries into the art world in general, as artists from the Kano school and the Ami school adopted the style and themes, but introducing a more plastic and decorative effect that would continue into modern times.
Important artists in the Muromachi period Japan include:
In sharp contrast to the previous Muromachi period, the Azuchi Momoyama period was characterized by a grandiose polychrome style, with extensive use of gold and silver foil, and by works on a very large scale. The Kano school, patronized by Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and their followers and gained tremendously in size and prestige. Kano Eitoku developed a formula for the creation of monumental landscapes on the sliding doors enclosing a room. These huge screens and wall paintings were commissioned to decorate the castles and palaces of the military nobility. This status continued into the subsequent Edo period, as the Tokugawa bakufu continued to promote the works of the Kano school as the officially sanctioned art for the Shogun, daimyo, and Imperial court.
However, non-Kano school artists and currents existed and developed during the Azuchi-Momoyama period as well, adapting Chinese themes to Japanese materials and aesthetics. One important group was the Tosa school, which developed primarily out of the yamato-e tradition, and which was known mostly for small scale works and illustrations of literary classics in book or emaki format.
Important artists in the Azuchi-Momoyama period include:
Many art historians show the Edo period as a continuation of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Certainly, during the early Edo period, many of the previous trends in painting continued to be popular; however, a number of new trends also emerged.
One very significant school which arose in the early Edo period was the Rimpa school, which used classical themes, but presented them in a bold, and lavishly decorative format. Sōtatsu in particular evolved a decorative style by re-creating themes from classical literature, using brilliantly colored figures and motifs from the natural world set against gold-leaf backgrounds. A century later, Korin reworked Sōtatsu's style and created visually gorgeous works uniquely his own.
Another important genre which began during Azuchi-Momoyama period, but which reached its full development during the early Edo period was Namban art, both in the depiction of exotic foreigners and in the use of the exotic foreigner style in painting. This genre was centered around the port of Nagasaki, which after the start of the national seclusion policy of the Tokugawa bakufu was the only Japanese port left open to foreign trade, and was thus the conduit by which Chinese and European artistic influences came to Japan. Paintings in this genre include Nagasaki school paintings, and also the Maruyama-Shijo school, which combine Chinese and Western influences with traditional Japanese elements.
A third important trend in the Edo period was the rise of the Bunjinga (literati painting) genre, also known as the Nanga school (Southern Painting school). This genre started as an imitation of the works of Chinese scholar-amateur painters of the Yuan dynasty, whose works and techniques came to Japan in the mid 18th century. Later bunjinga artists considerably modified both the techniques and the subject matter of this genre to create a blending of Japanese and Chinese styles. The exemplars of this style are Ike no Taiga, Uragami Gyokudo,Yosa Buson, Tanomura Chikuden, Tani Buncho, and Yamamoto Baiitsu.
Due to the Tokugawa bakufu's policies of fiscal and social austerity, the luxurious modes of these genre and styles were largely limited to the upper strata of society, and were unavailable, if not actually forbidden to the lower classes. The common people developed a separate type of art, the fuzokuga, in which painting depicting scenes from common, everyday life, especially that of the common people, kabuki theatre, prostitutes and landscapes were popular. These paintings in the 16th century gave rise to the semi-mass produced woodcut print, or ukiyoe, which was one of the defining media of the mid to late Edo period.
Important artists in the Edo period include:
During the Meiji period, Japan underwent a tremendous political and social change in the course of the westernization and modernization campaign organized by the new Meiji government. The Meiji period was marked by the division of art into competing western styles and traditional indigenous styles.
Western style painting (Yōga) was officially promoted by the government, who sent promising young artists abroad for studies, and who hired foreign artists to come to Japan to establish an art curriculum at Japanese schools.
However, after an initial burst for western style art, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and led by art critic Okakura Kakuzo and educator Ernest Fenollosa, there was a revival of appreciation for traditional Japanese styles (Nihonga). In the 1880, western style art was banned from official exhibitions and was severely criticized by critics. Supported by Okakura and Fenollosa, the Nihonga style evolved with influences from the European pre-Raphaelite movement and European romanticism.
The Yōga style painters formed the Meiji Bijutsukai (Meiji Fine Arts Society) to hold its own exhibitions and to promote a renewed interest in western art.
In 1907, with the establishment of the Bunten under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, both competing groups found mutual recognition and co-existence, and even began the process towards mutual synthesis.
Important artists in the Meiji period include:
The Taishō period saw the predominance of Yōga over Nihonga. After long stays in Europe, many artists (including Arishima Ikuma) returned to Japan during the Taishō period, bringing with them the techniques of impressionism and early post-impressionism. The works of Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and Pierre Auguste Renoir influenced early Taishō period paintings. However, yōga artists in the Taishō period also tended towards eclecticism, and there was a profusion of dissident artistic movements. These included the Fusain Society (Fyuzankai) which emphasized styles of post-impressionism, especially fauvism. In 1914, the Nikakai (Second Division Society) emerged to oppose the government-sponsored Bunten Exihibition.
Japanese painting during the Taishō period was only mildly influenced by other contemporary European movements, such as neoclassicism and late post-impressionism.
However, interestingly it was resurgent Nihonga, towards the end of the Taishō period, which adopted certain trends from post-impressionism. The second generation of Nihonga artists formed the Japan Fine Arts Academy (Nihon Bijutsuin) to compete against the government-sponsored Bunten, and although yamato-e traditions remained strong, the increasing use of western perspective, and western concepts of space and light began to blur the distinction between Nihonga and yōga.
Important artists in the Taishō period include:
During the World War II period, government controls and censorship meant that only patriotic themes could be expressed. Many artists were recruited into the government propaganda effort, and critical non-emotional review of their works is only just beginning.
In the post-war period, the government-sponsored Japan Art Academy (Nihon Geijutsuin) was formed in 1947, containing both nihonga and yōga divisions. Government sponsorship of art exhibitions has ended, but has been replaced by private exhibitions, such as the Nitten, on an even larger scale. Although the Nitten was initially the exhibition of the Japan Art Academy, since 1958 it has been run by a separate private corporation. Participation in the Nitten has become almost a prerequisite for nomination to the Japan Art Academy, which in itself is almost an unofficial prerequisite for nomination to the Order of Culture.
Important artists in the Shōwa period include:
Japanese-style painting (nihonga) continues in a modern fashion, updating traditional expressions while retaining their intrinsic character. Some artists within this style still paint on silk or paper with traditional colors and ink, while others used new materials, such as acrylics. Many of the older schools of art, most notably those of the Tokugawa period, were still practiced. For example, the decorative naturalism of the rimpa school, characterized by brilliant, pure colors and bleeding washes, was reflected in the work of many postwar artists and in the 1980s art of Hikosaka Naoyoshi. The realism of Maruyama Ōkyo's school and the calligraphic and spontaneous Japanese style of the gentlemen-scholars were both widely practiced in the 1980s. Sometimes all of these schools, as well as older ones, such as the Kano school ink traditions, were drawn on by contemporary artists in the Japanese style and in the modern idiom. Many Japanese-style painters were honored with awards and prizes as a result of renewed popular demand for Japanese-style art beginning in the 1970s. More and more, the international modern painters also drew on the Japanese schools as they turned away from Western styles in the 1980s. The tendency had been to synthesize East and West. Some artists had already leapt the gap between the two, as did the outstanding painter Shinoda Toko. Her bold sumi ink abstractions were inspired by traditional calligraphy but realized as lyrical expressions of modern abstraction.
There are also a number of contemporary painters in Japan whose work is largely inspired by anime sub-cultures and other aspects of popular and youth culture. Takashi Murakami is perhaps among the most famous and popular of these, along with and the other artists in his Kaikai Kiki studio collective. His work centers on expressing issues and concerns of postwar Japanese society through what are usually seemingly innocuous forms. He draws heavily from anime and related styles, but produces paintings and sculptures in media more traditionally associated with fine arts, intentionally blurring the lines between commercial and popular art and fine arts.