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Japanese painting: Kanō school

The Kanō school of painters were professional artists patronized by the shogunate from the late Muromachi period (1333-1568). The school was founded by Kanō Masanobu (1434-1530) who trained in ink painting of the Chinese Southern Song and Yuan dynasties at Shōkokuji Temple in Kyoto. Originally this ink painting style had been practised mainly by Zen painter-monks as a way to enlightenment, but the Kanō artists became dominant, through the patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns (1338-1573). They were strictly secular professionals who worked mainly for the shogunate as official painters of Kanga over the next 400 years.

Kanō Motonobu (1476-1559) is reputed to have married the daughter of Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), official painter to the imperial court. Tosa painters worked in the pure Japanese Yamato-e style but Motonobu developed a synthesis of Kanga and Yamato-e known as Wakan, and Kanō painters subsequently worked on occasion for the imperial court. Kanō Eitoku (1543-90) and his followers perfected this fusion of styles in monumental wall paintings and screens made for temples and for the palaces and castles of military leaders of the Momoyama and early Edo period (late sixteenth-early seventeenth century) They used a 'Chinese' firm ink line and broad, bright colours, but introduced a Japanese sensibility and choice of subjects, including figure and landscape, and extensive glowing gold leaf.

Their strong official position, talent and creativity enabled the Kanō painters to flourish throughout the Edo period (1600-1868). The school expanded to more than sixteen branches in Edo (modern Tokyo), with offshoots in other major cities and local domains working for feudal lords. Unofficial Kanō branch schools of machieshi ('town painters') were also active throughout Japan working for the newly-rich merchants. Their vigorous figure style was suited to genre scenes of town life which led to the fūzokuga ('popular painting') movement which in turn developed into the Ukiyo-e school.

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