Kanō School Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1513, Kanō Motonobu painted his masterpieces at the Daisen-in Temple in Kyōto, “Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism” and “Birds and Flowers.” These represented a new style of painting that came to be known as the Kanō school, which flourished for centuries as the official and dominant painting academy.

Summary of Event

From about 1192 in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) until the Meiji Restoration (1868-1869), hereditary military dictators called shoguns governed Japan. The emperors were rulers in theory only. During the Muromachi period (1333-1573), the Ashikaga family shogunate Ashikaga shogunate (bakufu) officially governed from its residence at Muromachi in Kyōto. Chinese-style ink painting and Zen Buddhism flourished, centered in the Zen monasteries. The Ashikaga shoguns promoted the Chinese-style of painting, which produced monochromatic ink paintings depicting Chinese landscapes and subjects. Many Zen monks were outstanding painters, and the shoguns were patrons of artists such as the Zen monk Tenshō Shubūn (fl. 1418-1463), whose expressionistic ink-monochrome landscapes were in the kanga style of the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasties of China. Another Zen monk and one of the foremost artists of Japan was Sesshū (1420-1506). He had actually traveled to China, and his work was inspired by Chinese landscape paintings. Kanō school[Kano school] Painting;Japan Kanō Motonobu Kanō Masanobu Kanō Eitoku Tenshō Shubūn Sesshū Kanō Masanobu Ashikaga Yoshimasa Kanō Motonobu Ashikaga Yoshiaki Oda Nobunaga;art patronage Kanō Eitoku

In the latter part of the Muromachi period, a new and truly Japanese style of ink painting developed outside the Zen community. The founder of this new school was a layperson, Kanō Masanobu, who was from a warrior family of Kanō village in eastern Japan. He moved to Kyōto, became the official artist in the court of the shogun Yoshimasa (r. 1449-1473), and eventually became the first lay artist to paint in the ink-wash medium. His paintings of birds, landscapes, and people were popular with the military class. Masanobu’s art retained Chinese themes and style but incorporated occasional touches of pale tints, which were a deviation from the prevailing monochromatic or black Chinese ink-painting technique.

However, it was his son, Kanō Motonobu, who firmly established the Kanō school of painters and defined the Kanō stye of painting. Like his father, Motonobu was the official painter for the Ashikaga shogunate. In 1513, he painted shoheki-ga Shoheki-ga[Shoheki ga] , or sliding-door panel paintings, for the new Daisen-in subtemple of the Daitokuji monastery in Kyōto. These shoheki-ga clearly established the fundamental characteristics of the new Kanō style. Although retaining the Chinese subjects or themes of the established style of ink painting, they integrated the qualities of the traditional, classic Japanese style or yamato-e Yamato-e[Yamato e] (Japanese pictures). Motonobu’s paintings showed a decorative style: balanced compositions with large flat areas, vivid colors, and sharply defined line work. The shoheki-ga included two of Motonobu’s masterpieces: The Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism, The (Motonobu) and Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons (Motonobu) .

Originally six sliding-door panels composing a single scene, The Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism has been remounted and survives as six hanging scrolls in the Tokyo National Museum collection. The Tokyo Imperial Museum (which became the Tokyo National Museum) had acquired them during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and they were designated as “important cultural property.” The painting portrays Zen patriarchs in various activities. There are two figures in a rowboat, another drawing a bow and arrow, a patriarch in front of a great waterfall looking across the water, a group of three figures on large rocks, and two figures in conversation. A famous section from this set is the scene titled “Zen Patriarch Xiangyen Zhixian [Hsiang-yen] Sweeping with a Broom.”

Originally eight sliding-door panels depicting a single scene, Motonobu’s other great work, Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons, has been remounted as eight hanging scrolls in the collection of the Kyōto National Museum and has also been designated an “important cultural property.” The highly decorative composition revolves around a large pine tree and a waterfall. Richly colored birds of various types and sizes swim, fly, or rest. Many varieties of flowers are also painted in bright colors.

With these shoheki-ga, Motonobu began the art of large-scale mural composition and laid the foundation for the future prosperity and popularity of the Kanō school. In 1543, he completed another impressive set of shoheki-ga in the Reiun-in temple in the Myōshinji monastery at Kyōto. These decorative paintings depict landscapes, flowers, birds, and landscapes with figures.

With a genius for organization, he arranged for large groups consisting of family members and followers to complete commissions from monasteries, merchants, and court nobles. Appealing to every sector of society was a practical necessity, for Motonobu lived in turbulent times. The Ashikaga shogunate had never been a strong central administration. During this period, hundreds of autonomous daimyo (feudal warlords and their families) Daimyos controlled independent territories, protected by samurai (the warrior class). Throughout the Ashikaga period, there was bitter fighting between the various daimyo.

In 1573, the last Ashikaga shogun, Yoshiaki (r. 1568-1573), was driven out of Kyōto by the warlord Oda Nobunaga, who began the process of unifying Japan. His successor, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued the unification efforts. The era camed to be called the Momoyama period (1573-1603), after the place near Kyōto where Hideyoshi built one of his castles.

Throughout this period, the Kanō school continued to be the official painting school. Both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi became patrons of Motonobu’s grandson and designated successor, Kanō Eitoku. Eitoku created elegant screen, wall, sliding door, and ceiling paintings for his patrons’ palaces and castles.


The Kanō school continued until the end of the Edo period (1603-1863), when Western art became popular. During this period, it split into many branches over time but nevertheless remained the official academy. The most inspired of the later Kanō artists were Kanō Tanyu (1602-1674) and his brother Kanō Naonobu (1607-1650). Numerous schools of painting coexisted during this period. A notable example is the classic genre of woodblock prints called ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), many of which depicted scenes from places such as restaurants, teahouses, and theaters.

What is most important about the Kanō School is that it was Japan’s first truly professional secular school of artists. The largest of its kind, this hereditary line of painters found patrons from among the wealthy merchant class, court nobility, and Zen monasteries, as well as the military. Motonobu’s panel paintings at the Daisen-in subtemple initiated the art of large-scale mural composition in architectural formats, such as the immense wall surfaces of monasteries and palaces. Motonobu established a high standard for successfully soliciting commissions, and his system of group workmanship continued with later generations of Kanō painters. He thus laid the foundation for a prosperous painting academy.

Motonobu also created a new style of painting, the Kanō style, a synthesis of Zen-inspired Chinese ink painting and themes with traditional Japanese (yamato-e) lyricism, painting techniques, and decorative arrangement. The Kanō style influenced landscape painting for centuries. The bold compositions, large flat areas, and rich colors would later appear in the popular ukiyo-e or classic woodblock print genre depicting landscapes or everyday life during the Edo period. Numerous ukiyo-e artists were originally trained in the Kanō academy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doi, Tsugiyoshi. Momoyama Decorative Painting. New York: Weatherhill, 1977. Includes the history of the Kanō school painters and their role in the development of decorative painting on screens and sliding partitions. Inlcudes illustrations on almost every page.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Brenda, and Victoria Weston, ed. Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. Focuses on the transmission of painting traditions from one generation to the next in the prestigious Kanō painting academy, which shaped the structure of painting pedagogy in premodern Japan. Includes illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morse, Anne Nishimura. Japanese Art in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1998. Includes numerous examples of early Kanō school painting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takeda, Tsuneo. Kanō Eitoku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1977. This was the first critical work on the Kanō school to appear in English. Includes illustrations, index, and glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yamane, Yuzo. Momoyama Genre Painting. New York: Weatherhill, 1973. Describes the significant impact of the Kanō school on the development of true genre painting. Includes illustrations on almost every page.

1457-1480’s: Spread of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism

1467-1477: Ōnin War

1477-1600: Japan’s “Age of the Country at War”

Mar. 5, 1488: Composition of the Renga Masterpiece Minase sangin hyakuin

1532-1536: Temmon Hokke Rebellion

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-1567: Japanese Pirates Pillage the Chinese Coast

1550-1593: Japanese Wars of Unification

Sept., 1553: First Battle of Kawanakajima

June 12, 1560: Battle of Okehazama

1568: Oda Nobunaga Seizes Kyōto

1587: Toyotomi Hideyoshi Hosts a Ten-Day Tea Ceremony

1590: Odawara Campaign

1592-1599: Japan Invades Korea

1594-1595: Taikō Kenchi Survey

Oct., 1596-Feb., 1597: San Felipe Incident

Oct. 21, 1600: Battle of Sekigahara

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