The first essays in painting in Japan have left no traces, and the date of these first efforts is unknown. But during the seventh year of the reign of Yuriaku (A. D. 463), this prince sent to Corea in search of artists, and among those who were brought back was a painter named Inshiraga. The productions of this period, however, have not come down to us, and the earliest painting we now possess is the portrait of the prince Sho-toku-taishi. This painting, executed during the reign of the Emperor Suiko, at the beginning of the VIlth century, is preserved as a most precious relic of the past in the temple of Horiuji in the Province of Yamato.
About this period the government created an Administration of Painting, at first called the Guwa-Koshi, which was afterwards in A. D. 808 changed to Edokoro. The style of painting of this period was vigorous, yet of fine detail. Unfortunately little by little a new school was formed, which occupied itself with mere portraits of noblemen in court costumes loaded down with ornaments, a sad falling off in an artistic sense. The principal artist of this school was Tsunetaka, the Director of the Edokoro, whose official title was Tosagon-no-kami. His descendants took later the name of Tosa, which they adopted as their family name, whence the word Tosae given to this school.
In the beginning of the XIVth century appeared the celebrated painters Kao, Meicho, Josetsu, Shubun, and others. These great painters had studied the Chinese paintings of the Tsang and Kin dynasties. Succeeding these was the priest Sesshu, an equally celebrated artist ; and finally Kano-masanobu, the originator of Sagami, and his son Motonobu, were equally painters of great renown. Their descendants have followed in their footprints to our own day, especially the Kano and Tosa families, who have among them several artists of deserved reputation.
During the period of Tensho (1570) a painter named Iwasa Matabe, a student of the Tosae school, devoted himself to representing the manners and customs of his country. Hishigawa Moronobu, one of his imitators, who lived in Yeddo in 1690, was the founder of the school of Utagawa. About 1720, during the Kiôhô period, a celebrated Chinese painter named Chin-nam-ping came to Nagasaki, where he soon acquired a great reputation and many scholars ; and as he was followed by other artists not less renowned, such as Chinumei, Shabuson, and others, Chinese painting soon became popular and its influence was diffused throughout Japan.
But of all the painters of Japan he who has won the most renown both abroad and at home is Hokusai, born in 1760, died 1849. This illustrious man, like the great Millet of France, drew his inspirations from the labor and daily vocations of the people. He was treated with contempt by the nobles, but beloved by the masses, to escape whose importunities he was often forced to change both his residence and his name. His style has had many followers.
Japanese painting can be divided under two heads. First, paintings which represent historical costumes, furniture, etc.; the characteristic of this work is that it presents the object in all its detail of form, color and appearance, without either shadow or perspective. Second, paintings which represent landscapes, portraits, animals, horticulture, etc., with the same characteristic of truth to nature, but finished under the laws of perspective and shadow. Paintings called Sumie are those executed exclusively in India ink. Originally this style was accepted only by the literati and poets, whose love for nature and good taste alone could appreciate them, the popular voice calling for color. Many of the painters who followed this school, desiring to represent serious subjects, have overcome the imperfections in the drawings by inserting verses of poetry. The rules applicable to this style of execution are few and vague, and whilst the execution is always broad, yet certain careful details will always be found.
The favorite themes for these artists are picturesque valleys, steep mountain sides or rocky shores, the desire of the artist being to carry the spectator in imagination to those spots and fill him with his own poetry and the poetry of the surroundings. Of late years much attention has been paid to European styles of genre painting, and already many very good examples of such work show the progress made in this direction.