Nihonga Beauties

New York Asia Week, September 10th - 25th, 2009

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Scholten Japanese Art and Ryo Iida Asian Art are pleased to announce our tenth collaborative exhibition: Nihonga Beauties, opening September 10, 2009. This exhibition is focused on the bijin (beautiful women) paintings of Nihonga artists in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Nihonga, simply means 'Japanese painting,' but in the later part of 19th century, it took on a more nuanced meaning; the term nihonga began to be used in order to distinguish contemporary Japanese painting in traditional media from works produced by Japanese artists employing Western-style methods such as oil painting, identified as seiyoga (or yoga).

Although there was a government-sponsored national push towards modernization and all things Western, including the arts, in the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), it was not long before there was a push back against that policy and somewhat of a 'rediscovery' of traditional Japanese arts. An interest in defining a distinction between the Western and Eastern traditions eventually led to a conscientious movement to return towards Japanese methods and to celebrate Japanese painting- Nihonga. However, Nihonga was not merely a continuation of older painting traditions. While the artists employed stylistic and technical elements from several traditional schools, such as Kano, Rinpa, Tosa and Maruyama-Shijo, in many cases, Nihonga artists also adopted Western painting techniques such as realism and shading.

In this exhibition of Nihonga Beauties, we focus on the bijinga (lit. 'pictures of beautiful women') paintings from the first half of the 20th century, concentrating on the pre-war period.


Among the paintings from the Meiji Period, we can observe an interesting mix of traditional pre-Meiji and newly-developed Nihonga techniques. Odake Kokkan (1880-1945) vividly depicts two beauties of Meiji period in the ca. 1910 painting, Noryo (Cooling, ink and color on silk). While young women are dressed in traditional manner, their faces show the influence of Western-style modeling. Likewise, a classic subject, a portrait of a standing beauty by Ikeda Shoen (1886-1917), Yudachi (Evening Rain, ink and color on silk), also reveals subtle shading on the face.

In contrast, a ca. 1910 half-length painting on paper of a female minstrel player shown from behind by Kitano Tsunetomi (1880-1947) is rendered in rapid, loose brushstrokes, in a manner which would have been unthinkable as a finished painting to earlier generations. Tsunetomi became a prominent Nihonga artist, but early in his career (ca. 1899) he actually studied Western-style (yoga) painting, and before that, he was apprenticed to a traditional woodblock print carver. Although he began his artistic career as an illustrator, by 1915 he had emerged as one of the most important Nihonga artists of the period; his early work was particularly noted for the realism and sensuality of his bijin. Tsunetomi's ability to merge Western concepts and techniques with traditional Japanese subjects and methods is quintessential Nihonga.

A slightly later work by a student of Tsunetomi, Nakamura Teii (Nakamura Kiyosada, 1900-1992), provides an interesting example of bijinga influenced by Art Deco. Although not dated, the painting appears to be from the 1920's-30's. The subject is a young beauty standing beneath a branch of flowering plum. The title, Kunpu (Balmy Wind, ink and color on silk), is suggested by a scattering of falling red petals and her gesture of securing her kimono closed against the breeze. While her face is softly modeled, her elegant kimono is decorated with exaggerated proportions suggestive of the Art Deco style with flat planes of color contrasting red stylized waves against a ground of pale pink with subtle embroidered scrolling vines at the torso and bamboo leaves on the lower half.


One of the most influential figures advocating Nihonga in Japan was, perhaps surprisingly, Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), an American professor who joined the faculty at the Imperial University in Tokyo in 1878. Although his academic responsibilities covered political economy and philosophy, Fenollosa, through his associations with various Japanese artists, became very much involved in both preserving Japanese arts and culture and promoting contemporary Japanese Nihonga artists. One of Fenollosa's primary allies in his efforts to cultivate Nihonga was a former student, Okakura Tenshin (Okakura Kakuzo, 1862-1913), an art critic who became the first principal of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Both Fenollosa and Okakura would eventually curate at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Fenollosa from 1890-1896; and Okakura from 1904-1913.

In 1904 Okakura published in English The Ideals of the East (New York: Dutton), in which he described the emergence of a new style of Japanese art; one which incorporates some Western sensibilities such as individuality, but which is inherently Japanese: "According to this school, freedom is the greatest privilege of an artist, but freedom always in the sense of evolutional self-development. Art is neither the ideal nor the real. Imitation, whether of nature, of the old masters, or above all of self, is suicidal to the realization of the individuality, which rejoices always to play an original part, be it of tragedy or comedy, in the grand drama of life, of man, and of nature."


The increased appreciation and support (largely via government-sponsored art exhibitions) of native artistic traditions led to another development in the Nihonga genre - an interest in Japanese subjects drawn from historical, literary and philosophical sources. This exhibition includes two works by Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1896-1948) that draw on literary subjects. The first is a set of three paintings depicting three characters from a popular kabuki play, 'Naozamurai' ('The Faithful Samurai'). Although separated into three paintings, the characters are likely depicted as they were viewed on stage during an important act as identified by Kiyoshi with the title, Ryo no Yuki (Snow at the Dormitory, ink and colors on silk).

Another painting on silk by Kiyoshi offers a curious link, by degrees of separation, back to Ernest Fenollosa. The painting depicts a beauty seated beside a lit candle, brush in hand, as she inscribes elegant calligraphy on a poem card. Before her is an open suzuribako (writing box with ink stone), with the gold lacquer decoration meticulously rendered. The title, Seiyakashi (Song of Quiet Night Thoughts) refers to a famous Chinese poem commonly known in Japanese as Seiyashi (lit. 'Quiet Night Thoughts'), written by the immortal Chinese poet, Li Po (Li Bai, 701-762); although Kiyoshi inserts the extra kanji, 'ka' ('song') in the title. This poem has been translated numerous times into English (the first in 1904), but perhaps most famously, it was also included among a group of Li Po poems translated by the influential American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), based, in part, on the notes of his good friend, the late Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908).

Calm Night Thought
The moon light is on the floor luminous
I thought it was frost, it was so white
Holding up head I look at mountain moon
Lowering head think of old home

(Translated by Ezra Pound, Cathay, 1915).

The exhibition is scheduled to include approximately twelve paintings. In addition to the works previously mentioned there will be paintings by Watanabe Seitei (1851-1918), Ikeda Terukata (1883-1921), Kajiwara Hisako (1886-1988), Obayashi Chimaki (1887-1959), and Uda Tekison (1896-1980).

For the duration of the exhibition, September 10th - 25th, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointments needed) Mon. - Sat., 12 to 5pm. Located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, New York, NY 10019.


Scholten Japanese Art is open Monday - Friday, and some Saturdays by appointment only

Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
Visitors are asked to wear face masks and practice social distancing at their discretion.

site last updated
August 11, 2022

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475