Kano school

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The Old Plum, a set of fusuma paintings by Kanô Sansetsu, c. 1647, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
  • Japanese: 狩野(Kanou ha)

The Kanô school was a leading school (style) of painting in the 16th century, through the Azuchi-Momoyama period, and by virtue of becoming court painters (goyô eshi) to the Tokugawa shogunate, was the leading official/orthodox painting school of the Edo period. A great many Edo period painters, from just about every genre and school, had at least some training under a Kanô master; as such, it could be said that the Kanô school had a profound impact upon Edo period painting as a whole, high and low, informing many artists' work, and for some artists serving as the orthodoxy against which they resisted, experimenting or otherwise setting off in new directions.

While the leading branch of the Kanô school relocated to Edo in the early 17th century to become court painters to the shoguns, the Kyoto Kanô school remained strong, and served the Imperial Court and court nobility, while other artists entered the service of daimyô; meanwhile, in the three main cities, as well as in many other cities across the realm, town painters under the umbrella term "machi Kanô" - often people with formal Kanô training but little connection to the central hierarchies - produced works for commoner patrons.


The school is generally said to trace its origins to Kanô Masanobu (1434-1530), who was appointed court painter by the Ashikaga shogunate at some point, being joined in that position by his son Kanô Motonobu (1476-1559) in 1481. Masanobu, Motonobu, and the members of their atelier produced a wide range of works for both the Ashikaga and for other samurai clans, among other patrons, including religious icons, formal portraits, and interior decorations, in both Chinese and Japanese styles/modes.[1]

Motonobu was followed as head of the school by his son Kanô Shôei (1514-1562), who was in turn succeeded by his son, Kanô Eitoku (1543-1590). Eitoku's style was dramatically innovative in a variety of ways, and quickly came to define the Kanô style; Eitoku's works are among the most famous or defining works of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, and indeed he has been described as "the most celebrated painter of his time."[2] He was introduced to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru by his grandfather in 1552, and soon began working alongside his father and grandfather, and their students, to paint wall paintings for major Kyoto temples such as Daitoku-ji, among other elite locations.

Perhaps as early as this time, the Kanô school had developed enough of a reputation that having Kanô works in one's castle or mansion conveyed an impression of elite status, of power, and of cultured aesthetic sense. Numerous Sengoku daimyô vied for the attentions of the school.[3]

After becoming head of the school himself, Eitoku and members of his atelier painted works for Oda Nobunaga's Azuchi castle in 1576,[3] for Emperor Ôgimachi's retirement mansion in 1586, and for Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Jurakudai the following year, the latter alongside Hasegawa Tôhaku.[4] His innovations in decorative schema included a variety of techniques to make the room appear larger than it was, and also to paint large trees in such a way that they echoed or paralleled the wooden pillars of the architecture.[5] While commissioned to do the wall paintings (fusuma-e or shôhekiga) for many significant institutions in the 1570s-1580s, including temples, castles, elite mansions, and even the Imperial Palace, Eitoku and the members of his studio also produced many handscrolls, hanging scrolls, and folding screens (byôbu).

Eitoku died in 1590 and was succeeded as head of the school by his son Kanô Mitsunobu (1561-1608), though his pupil & adopted son Kanô Sanraku would also be a significant artist of this next generation of the school's history.[5]

Kanô Tan'yû was named an official court painter to the Tokugawa shogunate in 1617, two years after his great-uncle Kanô Naganobu moved to Edo and was granted that same honor, thus marking the beginning of the school's official relationship with the shogunate. Tan'yû was easily one of the most significant artists of the early decades of the Edo period. As the core Kanô school relocated with Tan'yû to Edo in 1621, Kanô Sanraku became the leading Kanô artist still active in Kyoto, where he continued to produce commissions for the Imperial Court and the Toyotomi clan, among other patrons.[6]

Several heads of the school passed away in rapid succession in the early 1600s, with Kanô Takanobu being succeeded by Kanô Naonobu in 1618, and then Kanô Sadanobu by Kanô Yasunobu in 1623. Around this time, the Edo Kanô school divided into four branches: the Kajibashi, Nakabashi, Kobikichô, and Hamachô Kanô, each named for the location of their studios, and founded, respectively, by Kanô Tan'yû, his brothers Naonobu and Yasunobu, and by Yasunobu's grandson Kanô Minenobu. These four schools formed the top levels of a hierarchy of Kanô artists; the heads of each of these schools came to be known as oku eshi, or "inner artists," and were granted samurai status and requisite stipends. As shogunal vassals, they were then obligated to present works to the shogun on a set day every month. Sixteen cadet branches, alongside a number of other Kanô artists, formed the next rung down; these omote eshi ("outer artists") did not possess samurai status or stipends, but still regularly received commissions from the shogunate. Other Kanô artists were not associated with the shogunate, but were retained as court artists by various daimyô. Finally there were the machi Kanô - town artists - who served individual samurai and commoner clients.[7]

For the oku eshi of the Kanô school, the first few decades of the Edo period were dominated by large-scale projects, as the Tokugawa shogunate and other elite patrons commissioned the Kanô to produce wall paintings and other large-scale works for Nijô, Osaka, Nagoya, and Edo castles, Nikkô Tôshôgû, Daitoku-ji, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Kishû Tokugawa clan summer mansion, and so forth. Later in the period, the school shifted to producing primarily smaller-scale works, including individual fusuma-e, byôbu, handscrolls, hanging scrolls, and the like.[8]

The popular/commoner art form ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") developed out of Kanô, Tosa, and other influences over the course of the 17th century, coming into its own by the end of that century. Many of the earliest greatest ukiyo-e artists, such as Iwasa Matabei and Hishikawa Moronobu, had at least some background in Kanô school training.

Kanô artists came to represent the chief elite and orthodox school of painting in the Edo period, the standard which other artists emulated and aspired to, and which patrons/consumers saw as the epitome of taste and class. Many artists of many different schools spent time studying Kanô painting in order to establish or hone the foundations of their skill, and many woodblock-printed copybooks, or model books, of Kanô painting circulated, allowing people to practice Kanô styles on their own.[7]

Kanô Hôgai (1828-1888) is often cited as the last great Kanô painter. The son of Kanô Seikô, a court painter for the lord of Chôfu domain in Shimonoseki, Hôgai later moved to Tokyo, where he produced a number of works on commission for the shogunate, including a ceiling painting for the Ôhiroma, the main audience hall of Edo castle, following the building's reconstruction after a fire. In the 1880s, at the encouragement and patronage of Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Kakuzô, Hôgai became one of the first leading Nihonga painters, combining Kanô techniques, aesthetics, and themes & motifs with Western ones to create and promote a new form of "neo-traditional" and "national" Japanese painting. While aspects of the Kanô tradition remain very much embedded in Nihonga painting today, perhaps as early as 1900, even in the comparatively conservative Kyoto art world, artists and works were no longer being described as belonging to specific Edo period schools.[9]

Selected Notable Kanô artists


  1. Timon Screech, Obtaining Images, University of Hawaii Press (2012), 135-136.
  2. Sasaki Johei. "The Era of the Kano School." Modern Asian Studies 18:4 (1984), 648.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Screech, 137.
  4. Penelope Mason, History of Japanese Art, Second Edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall (2005), 259-263.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Mason, 255-257.
  6. Screech, 37.; Mason, 258-259.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Christine Guth, Art of Edo Japan, Yale University Press (1996), 96.
  8. Guth, 97.
  9. "Kanô Hôgai," Asahi Nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten 朝日日本歴史人物事典, Asahi Shimbunsha.; Conant, Ellen (ed.). Nihonga: Transcending the Past. The Saint Louis Art Museum, 1995.