Japanese painting: The Tosa and Sumiyoshi schools

The Tosa school of painters were official artists to the imperial court from the fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. The family name Tosa is said to derive from Tosa Province in Shikoku where the court painter Fujiwara no Tsunetaka became governor in the thirteenth century, but the Tosa artists of the Edo period (1600-1868) date their lineage back further still, to the eleventh century. They painted in the Yamato-e style, often taking their themes from classical literature, especially Genji monogatari ('The Tale of Genji').

The Tosa style is bright, with flat colour in decorative compositions combined with delicate outline and careful attention to detail. Viewpoints are often sharply angled, looking into interior spaces with, by convention, the roof removed (fuki-nuki yatai).

The three outstanding Tosa painters were Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), Tosa Mitsunaga and Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-91) who are known as 'The Three Brushes'. Mitsunobu is said to have married the daughter of Kanō Motonobu, the leading artist of the Kanō school, and so he received commissions from the Imperial court and military aristocracy. Indeed, during the later Muromachi period (1333-1568), Tosa artists were responsible for many formal hanging scroll portraits of the ruling classes.

After a period of decline, coinciding with the civil wars of the late sixteenth century, Mitsuoki brought about a revival. Mitsuoki, appointed edokoro azukari ('custodian of the office of painting') in 1654, was heavily influenced by Chinese painting and produced elegant kachōga (bird-and-flower paintings). His descendants followed this lead, but there was a tendency to make works that were over-stylized and lacking in life. The Sumiyoshi school, a late seventeenth-century offshoot of the Tosa school, worked primarily for the Edo shogunate. For a time it produced far more lively works, often in genre style, inspired by the skill of Sumiyoshi Gukei (1631-1705).

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