In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Meiji Painting

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Theory and Criticism

Art History Meiji Painting
Victoria Weston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0151


The Meiji period (1868–1912) is a watershed moment in Japan’s long history, marking a shift from indigenous governance organized around a shogun and regional lords (daimyō) to constitutional monarchy. In the Edo period (1603–1868), Japan had limited international relations as leadership sought to maintain tight domestic control. This famous “isolation policy” (sakoku) was porous, however; Japan traded with its Asian neighbors and with Holland, through which it gained European goods and insight into foreign affairs. The arrival of an American naval squadron led by Matthew Perry (1853) marked the beginning of Japan’s reintegration into wide international relations. External threats to Japan’s sovereignty and internal pressures shattered its feudal government, and rebellion replaced feudal lords with an oligarchy of advisors to the emperor (Meiji) and ultimately a parliament. Meiji is the period of Japan’s Westernization, when it sought to catch up with the West technologically and gain equal treatment through social and political reforms. In the arts, Westernization brought new forms of architecture and decoration, sculpture, and oil painting. The central problem of the period was the degree to which Japan should Westernize while still remaining Japanese. Japanese painting experienced the problem as a basic divide: tradition-based painting (nihonga) versus Western oil-based painting (yōga). Critical reception of Meiji art was both domestic and international, as this was the heyday of international expositions, and art was seen as an index to the quality of national culture. Critics and artists within Japan engaged in dynamic processes of exploration and assimilation; Western critics, alarmed by industrialization, saw assimilation as destructive of “traditional” culture. Western critics and collectors valued art in two qualitative levels: fine and applied. Where applied arts, such as vases, integrated easily into interiors and posed no challenges to Western hierarchies, Japanese painting was alien and used materials more akin to drawing than oils. Scholarship on Meiji painting progressed along two opposing tracks: Western scholars stopped at the onset of Westernization—Japanese art was no longer “purely” Japanese after that point, which Japanese officials understood when constructing displays of art that ended with Edo at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Domestically, Japanese scholars organically studied succeeding periods, styles, and artists. Scholarship on Meiji painting in Western languages is limited, its growth coming only in the last couple of decades. Only in the 1990s did Western students begin to focus their careers on Meiji painting and beyond.

General Overviews

Few sources in English provide an overview of Meiji-period painting or Meiji art, including the general surveys of Japanese art. Those that do were generated in response to the Meiji centennial (Gutiérrez 1968, Kawakita 1976, Miyagawa 1967, Munsterberg 1978, and Uyeno 1958), and book-length treatments are mostly translations from Japanese. These works share a common generalization: the 1870s were a period of sweeping westernization that threatened the very existence of native art; the 1880s engendered backlash and struggle for oil painting; the 1890s stabilized with acceptance of both nihonga and yōga. In nihonga, these narratives prioritized Tokyo and the painters aligned with Okakura Kakuzō (b. 1862–d. 1913; see Tokyo Nihonga) over developments in Kyoto or elsewhere. Exhibition catalogues have been crucial to the development of scholarship outside Japan, including Baekeland 1980; Berry 2002; Conant, et al. 1995; and Satō and Watanabe 1991. Three articles compare nihonga and yōga by narrowing their discussions to a few artists (Rosenfield 1976 or a particular genre (Croissant 2008, Takashina 2006).

  • Baekeland, Frederick. Imperial Japan: The Art of the Meiji Era, 1868–1912: An Exhibition. Ithaca, NY: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1980.

    This exhibition catalogue is a landmark, being the first scholarly treatment of Meiji art in the United States. Good introductory essay, though it overemphasizes the destructive impact of Westernization in the 1870s. Each art medium is treated separately.

  • Berry, Paul. “The Transformation of Traditional Painting Practices in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Japan.” In An Enduring Vision: 17th- to 20th-Century Japanese Painting from the Gitter-Yelen Collection. Edited by Tadashi Kobayashi and Lisa Rotondo-McCord, 185–201. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.

    Lucid discussion of nihonga and yōga that constructs a framework for thinking about Japanese painting’s engagement with foreign work, qualifies the emergence and specific historical uses of the terms nihonga and yōga, and examines nihonga painters in Kyoto and Tokyo within and without formal artist institutions.

  • Conant, Ellen, Steven D. Owyoung, and J. Thomas Rimer. Nihonga: Transcending the Past; Japanese Style Painting, 1868–1968. New York: Weatherhill, 1995.

    This exhibition, organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Japan Foundation, was the first large-scale treatment of nihonga in the United States. One of its achievements was the balancing of Kyoto and Tokyo nihonga, thus undermining the dominant Tokyo-centric narrative. The catalogue presents sixty Meiji-period images, most of them paintings, with brief discussions plus six scholarly essays. In addition, thirty-eight pages provide historical overviews of art institutions and issues, and forty-four give painter biographies.

  • Croissant, Doris. “From Madonna to Femme Fatale: Gender Play in Japanese National Painting.” In Performing “Nation”: Gender Politics in Literature, Theater, and the Visual Arts of China and Japan, 1880–1940. Edited by Doris Croissant, Catherine Vance Yeh, and Joshua Mostow, 265–306. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004170193.i-448.51

    Croissant considers the uses of bijinga (“pictures of beautiful women”) in the Meiji period forward, particularly in the work of Tsuchida Bakusen (b. 1887–d. 1936). She outlines Bakusen’s bijinga as beginning with sexualized treatments consonant with Edo-period popular prints and moving to idealization encapsulated in the period slogan “good wife, wise mother.”

  • Gutiérrez, Fernando. “Artistic Trends in the Meiji Period.” In Japan’s Modern Century: A Special Issue of Monumenta Nipponica Prepared in Celebration of the Centennial of the Meiji Restoration. Edited by Edmund Skrzypczak, 161–189. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1968.

    Discussion of Okakura Kakuzō (b. 1862–d. 1913)/Ernest Fenollosa (b. 1853–d. 1908)–led school of Tokyo painters dominates this text. Of the total page count, roughly seven address yōga and two, without illustration, Kyoto nihonga.

  • Kawakita, Michiaki. Modern Currents in Japanese Art. Translated and adapted by Charles S. Terry. New York: Weatherhill, 1976.

    A survey beginning with the dominant schools of Edo-period painting and progressing through to (then) contemporary art. Meiji Period yōga is sequenced from realism (Edo-period “Dutch Studies”), the Technical Art School (Kōbu Daigaku Bijutsu Gakkō, Asai Chū), to later European styles (Kuroda Seiki, Aoki Shigeru, Fujishima Takeji). Nihonga is represented by painters aligned with Okakura Kakuzō, with only brief coverage of Kyoto or literati. One chapter outlines lineages of art groups and institutions. Originally published as Kindai bijutsu no nagare (1965).

  • Miyagawa, Torao. Modern Japanese Painting: An Art in Transition. Translated and adapted by Toshizo Imai. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1967.

    This survey of modern Japanese painting provides a general discussion followed by short chapters organized by time period and category, nihonga and yōga. Miyagawa was a scholar of Tokyo nihonga led by Okakura Kakuzō, and he gives scant information on developments in Kyoto or in literati painting. Within those bounds, the thirty-six color plates, their explanations, and two charts of painting societies are helpful.

  • Munsterberg, Hugo. The Art of Modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration to the Meiji Centennial, 1868–1968. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1978.

    Broad survey of painting, sculpture, architecture, and printmaking, preceded by two chapters on Japanese culture. For Meiji painting, covers yōga and nihonga. The discussion of nihonga prioritizes Tokyo and the Okakura group, but includes literati painter Tomioka Tessai (b. 1837–d. 1924) and some Kyoto painters.

  • Rosenfield, John M. “Western Style Painting in the Early Meiji Period and Its Critics.” In Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture. Edited by Donald H. Shively, 181–220. Studies in the Modernization of Japan 5. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

    Rosenfield discusses yōga and nihonga by focusing on yōga painters Kawakami Tōgai (b. 1827–d. 1881) and Koyama Shōtarō (b. 1857–d. 1916) versus critic Okakura Kakuzō and nihonga painter Yokoyama Taikan (b. 1868–d. 1958). It includes discussion of landmark events such as the debate over whether calligraphy should be considered a fine art, Fenollosa’s 1882 speech “The Essence of Painting” (“Bijutsu shinsetsu,” which exists only in Japanese), and drawing instruction in public schools.

  • Satō, Tomoko, and Toshio Watanabe. Japan and Britain: An Aesthetic Dialogue 1850–1930. London: Barbican Art Gallery, 1991.

    Exhibition catalogue including forty-one Meiji nihonga and yōga works (inclusive of watercolors) by fourteen painters, though only some of the works are illustrated.

  • Takashina, Shūji. “History Painting in the Meiji Era: A Consideration of the Issues.” In Challenging the Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art. Edited by Ellen Conant, 56–64. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006.

    Historical topics (rekishiga) were an important category in Meiji painting for their political uses, so much so that they were the subject of a famous debate between two Meiji intellectuals, Tsubouchi Shōyō (b. 1859–d. 1935) and Takayama Chogyū (b. 1871–d. 1902). Takashina addresses a selection of both nihonga and yōga examples.

  • Uyeno, Naoteru. Japanese Arts and Crafts in the Meiji Period. Centenary Culture Council Series. English adaptation by Richard Lane. Tokyo: Pan-Pacific Press, 1958.

    The discussion of painting is somewhat fractured owing to difficulties lining up an author. The narrative focuses on Tokyo and opposes Okakura’s group of nihonga painters with yōga artists. Kyoto is barely represented. The detail on the Okakura group is fuller than other surveys.

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