Shasei-ga: copying from nature in Japanese art

From about the middle of the eighteenth century, a number of Japanese artists introduced a new realism into their work, often sketching from nature. The influences were artistic and scientific, and from both China and Europe.

The port of Nagasaki, through which most foreigners and foreign influences reached Japan during the 'period of seclusion' (sakoku, c.1639-1853), was home to a school of Chinese-style painting founded by the Chinese artist Shen Nanpin (visited Japan 1731-33). He brought a realistic and colourful style of flower-and-bird painting which was taken up by Japanese artists such as Sō Shiseki (1712-1800). Woodblock prints which used Western-style vanishing point perspective and chiaroscuro reached Japan via Dutch traders. The Dutch also introduced copper-plate engravings, which were first copied by Shiba Kōkan in the 1780s.

In the scientific field, the Japanese practised Chinese honz&o-macr;gaku ('pharmacology') and the practice of recording medicinal herbs also provided a stimulus for realistic art. Shogun Yoshimune (ruled 1716-45) was interested in science and in 1720 he partially relaxed the ban on the import of European illustrated scientific books. In the seventeenth century Kanō Tan'yū had already painted Sketches of Various Birds, which were copied by Ogiwara Tōkitsu and then by Noda Tomin in 1792.

The nobleman Konoe Iehiro (1667-1736) himself drew flowers and trees and commissioned realistic works from the Kyoto artist Watanabe Shikō (1653-1755). Maruyama ōkyo (1733-95) admired Shikō's work, and made a copy of one of his most important paintings. ōkyo was interested in human anatomy and physiognomy, and also developed a new landscape style based on drawing from nature. His mature style was a resolution of traditional and new trends, which was then further developed by artists of the Maruyama and Shijō schools.

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