The Kanoha Group (狩野派)

The Kanoha group is the largest gaha (group of painters) in Japanese art history, and was active for about 400 years from the middle of the Muromachi period (fifteenth century) to the end of the Edo period (nineteenth century) as a group of expert painters that consistently dominated the art world. Masanobu KANO, the official painter of the Muromachi shogunate, was the earliest ancestor; his descendants worked for Nobunaga ODA, Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI and the Tokugawa Shogun as painters after the collapse of the Muromachi shogunate, consistently dominating the art world associated with the powers-that-be, thus greatly influencing Japanese art circles as a professional painter group working on works ranging from screen paintings in the Imperial Palace, castles or large temples to small paintings such as those created on fans.


The Kanoha group is a painter group mainly concerned with consanguinity such as parents or brothers; it reigned over the nation's realm of art for as long as four centuries, a period unequaled anywhere in the world.

Prominent painters of the Kanoha group include the founder Masanobu KANO, who worked for Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA, the eighth Seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians") of the Muromachi shogunate; his heir, Motonobu KANO, a grandson of Motonobu; Eitoku KANO, who created screen paintings of the Azuchi and Osaka castles; a grandson of Eitoku, Tanyu KANO, who moved from Kyoto to Edo and supervised the creation of screen paintings of Edo Castle and Nijo Castle; Sanraku KANO, who stayed in Kyoto, thus representing a group called 'Kyo Kano.'

Once the structure of the Edo shogunate had become stable, the members of the Kanoha group were driven to get extensive orders done for screen paintings of the Imperial Palace and castles as the shogunate's official painters. In order to fulfill large numbers of orders for screen paintings, the head of the Kano family needed to lead the painters so they could work in a group. Consequently, the painters of the Kanoha group needed to learn ancestral painting examples and ways of painting without expressing their individuality as painters. Given such an historical backdrop, it can be said that the Kanoha group after Tanyu KANO only tried to keep the tradition and maintain influence as official painters, and therefore lost its artistic drive.

In the present day, an artist's expression of individuality and mentality is valued, so the evaluation of paintings of the Kanoha group is not necessarily high. However, it is a fact that the Kanoha group led the Japanese art world for about four centuries and that numbers of painters were developed by the group; thus one can hardly discuss the history of Japanese painting but exclude the Kanoha group, whether in positive or negative terms. It is also a fact that many Japanese painters after the early years of the modern age were influenced by the Kanoha group and started with the influence of the Kanoha group; initially, Korin OGATA, of the Rinpa group, and Okyo MARUYAMA of the Shaseiha group had learned from the Kanoha group.

The Muromachi Period

The Kanoha group was founded by Masanobu KANO (c. 1434 - 1530), who worked as the official painter for the Muromachi shogunate. He lived quite long for a Japanese of the time (it is commonly believed that he died at age 97), and worked from the middle of the fifteenth century until the early sixteenth century. It is said that he was from the Izu area, but that is uncertain. Due to the progress of study after the late twentieth century, it is speculated that the Kano family was somehow related to the Nagao clan in Ashikaga, Shimotsuke Province (Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture); and "Waterfall," an ink painting that remains at Chorin-ji Temple in Ashikaga City, is considered a relatively early work by Masanobu. The first painting work recorded as having been done by Masanobu is the screen paintings he did of the Deity of Mercy and Luohan in Unchoin, Shokoku-ji Temple Tower, which he did in Kyoto at the age of 30 in 1463. This was just before the turmoil of the Onin War (1467 - 1477) (as reported in Inryoken Nichiroku (Inryoken's Diary)), which tells us that Masanobu was already working as a painter in Kyoto by that time. Shokoku-ji Temple, as the main temple building of Unchoin, where Masanobu created the screen paintings, is a Zendera temple constructed by Yoshimitsu ASHIKAGA, the third Shogun of the Muromachi shogunate; it is the heart of the Muromachi art world, which produced artist-monks such as Josetsu, Shubun, Sesshu; moreover, in those days Sotan (Sotan OGURI, 1413 - 1481), an artist-monk who was a disciple of Shubun, worked as an official painter. Although it is not exactly certain when Masanobu KANO went to Kyoto, whom he studied under and when he became the official painter for the Muromachi shogunate, it is clear (according to certain records) that Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA, the eighth Shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, gave him an important position. In 1481, a few years after the tumultuous Onin War (1467 - 1477), which had lasted for a decade, Sotan, the official painter for the Muromachi shogunate, died; thus it is thought that Masanobu KANO was appointed as the official painter for the shogunate, succeeding Sotan. Subsequently, Mitsunobu TOSA, of the Yamatoe group (a style of Japanese painting) who was in the postion of Edokoro-azukari (a leader of painters who worked for the Imperial Court) of the Imperial Court, and Masanobu KANO of the Kanga (a Chinese style of painting) group, became two major forces in the art world.

In 1482, the former Shogun, Yoshimasa ASHIKAGA, started the construction of Higashiyama dono (the predecessor of Ginkaku-ji Temple), and Masanobu took charge of the screen paintings. Following the death of Yoshimasa in 1490, Masanobu worked for the Hosokawa clan, which had political power at the time. In this way Masanobu solidified his position in the art world while deepening his relationship with the powers-that-be, and built a foundation for the subsequent prosperity of the Kanoha group. According to records, it is known that Masanobu created works in various styles and subjects, including screen paintings and Buddhist paintings; however, all his screen paintings have been lost and the existing works are limited to small paintings such as a hanging scroll. His painting style was 'kanga,' with ink painting based on the brushwork of Sung and Yuan in China, in contrast to the traditional Yamatoe of his contemporary, Mitsunobu TOSA. Although Masanobu lived until age 97, it isn't clear what work he produced during the last 30 years, and it seems he had his heir Motonobu assume the work of painting as he went into retirement.

The second generation, Motonobu KANO (1476 - 1559), who built the basis of prosperity of the Kanoha group, was the heir of Masanobu. His best existing works include the screen paintings in the hojo of Daisenin, Daitoku-ji Temple (the hojo, or chief priest's room, was completed in 1513) and another one in Reiunin, Myoshin-ji Temple in 1543 (it is widely believed that the screen paintings in Daisenin were not created at the time the hojo was completed but were done in a slightly later period).
The creation of the screen paintings in the hojo of Daisenin was divided among Soami, Motonobu and his brother Yukinobu KANO, depending on the room; accordingly, Motonobu took charge of "Four Seasons, Flowers and Birds" in 'Danna no Ma' and "Founder of the Zenshu sect" in 'Ihatsu no Ma.'
"Founder of Zenshu sect" is a typical ink painting, while "Four Seasons, Flowers and Birds" is based on ink and shows a new flavor at the same time, as it uses colors only on the flowers and birds. Motonobu strengthened the ties with the Ashikaga Shogun and the Hosokawa clan as the powers-that-be, had numerous disciples and consolidated the basis of the Kanoha as a group of painters. He accepted orders from court nobles, temples and shrines as well as samurai families; and as for temples and shrines it is known that he created the screen paintings of Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple in Osaka according to the historical record, but this no longer exists.

Because Motonobu referred to himself as 'Echizen no kami' in his later life, he was given a priestly rank called 'Hogen' however, for posterity he has been referred to as 'Kohogen' or 'Echizen Hogen.'
The work is wide-ranging: he created the Engi Emaki of temples and shrines, votive pictures, gilded folding screens in the Yamatoe style, and portraits as well as screen paintings. Motonobu assumed the Yamatoe painting style in Kanga and ink painting (in which his father Masanobu specialized); he specialized in large decorative paintings such as a Fusuma (Japanese sliding door) and a folding screen, and built a foundation for the style of the Kanoha group. He is also called the founder of the early modern screen paintings as he established the concept of calligraphy painting styles such as Shintai (standard style), Gyotai (semi-cursive style), and Sotai (cursive style).

The Azuchi-Momoyama Period

Motonobu had three sons: Munenobu, Hideyori and Naonobu; Naonobu (1519 - 1592); the first, Munenobu, died young, and the third son Naonobu succeeded as the head of family. It is not clear why their family estate was transferred to the third son Naonobu instead of Hideyori, the second son. Naonobu is widely known as Shoei KANO (his posthumous name), and he was active from the Muromachi period to the Momoyama period. The huge "Nirvana" (six meters long) in Daitoku-ji Temple is his finest work. Although he participated in the creation of the screen paintings for the Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple with his father Motonobu as well as in the creation of the screen paintings for the Jukoin, Daitoku-ji Temple with his son Eitoku, he was a less famous artist because his father Motonobu and his son Eitoku were more prominent.

Eitoku KANO (1543 - 1590), the heir of Shoei, is also called Kuninobu; he is one of the most distinguished painters of the Japanese art world from the Momoyama period. Although he created numbers of screen paintings in strict compliance with the plans of the men in power who had survived wild times--including Nobunaga ODA and Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI--these paintings were lost with the buildings, so relatively few of Eitoku's works remain in existence.

The paintings on the partitions in the hojo of Jukoin, Daitoku-ji Temple (which are among his best existing works) were created by Eitoku together with his father Shoei; however, Shoei had Eitoku take charge of Fusumae of the major room in the south front of the hojo, while he took a supporting role. In the days of feudal society it was a common practice that the head of a family would create Fusumae in the major room, so it is historically believed that, at the time such paintings were created, Shoei had already retired after transferring the family estate to Eitoku, who was a great talent. "Flowers and Birds" in Shitchu (the center front room of Hojo) is very highly acclaimed among the screen paintings of Hojo of Jukoin.

Subsequently, Eitoku became involved in the creation of the screen paintings in Azuchi Castle Tower, which Nobunaga ODA constructed during the period from 1576 to 1579. He created screen paintings in the Osaka Castle of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI and Jurakudai after Nobunaga died, and in his later years also became involved in creating the screen paintings in the Imperial Palace. These works were highly acclaimed for their originality in the journals and records of the time, so they would be Eitoku's best works if they existed; however, these paintings were lost with the buildings. As Eitoku's existing best works, the screen paintings in the hojo of Jukoin, as previously described, are renowned as well as "Foo dogs, folding screen" as former imperial property, and "Urban and suburb of Kyoto, folding screen," as handed down through the Uesugi clan; it has also been said that "Cypress, folding screen" in the Tokyo National Museum was painted by Eitoku. Eitoku excelled at elaborate paintings and monumental paintings, although he had no choice but to paint in the monumental painting style in order to fill a large number of orders for screen paintings. An elaborate painting is interpreted as a work described in every detail, and monumental painting is interpreted as having a high-minded style.

The Kanoha group also had the most important painters in the early modern ages. "Viewing Maple Leaves in Takao," a designated national treasure, has the seal of 'Hideyori'; it has been said that this was painted by Hideyori KANO (birth and death dates unknown), the second son of Motonobu KANO; however, it is also said that this 'Hideyori' of "Viewing Maple Leaves in Takao" is another painter called Hideyori SHINSHO, a grandson of Motonobu. Soshu KANO (1551 - 1601) was a brother of Eitoku, also called Motohide, and worked as an assistant to Eitoku in the creation of the screen paintings in Azuchi Castle. Folding screens and portraits still in existence have been attributed to him. Naganobu KANO (1577 - 1654), another brother of Eitoku, is renowned as the painter of "Playing Under the Flowering Trees," a national treasure. As painters other than the direct line of the Kano family, Yoshinobu KANO (1552 - 1640), who painted "Craftspeople, folding screen" in Kawagoe Kitain, and Naizen KANO (1570 - 1616), who painted "Hokoku Festival, folding screen" in Kyoto Toyokuni-jinja Shrine (Kyoto City), are well known.

The Early Edo Period

Eitoku KANO died at age 48, preceding his father Shoei (Naonobu). Eitoku's first son Mitsunobu KANO (c. 1565 - 1608) and second son Takanobu KANO (1571 - 1618) succeeded him. Mitsunobu created the screen paintings in the Reception Hall of Kangakuin, Onjo-ji Temple; in contrast to Eitoku he specialized in delicate painting in the Yamatoe style. Such a style of painting might not have suited the public taste at the time, and the early modern essays on paintings, including "Honchogashi," generally put a low value on Mitsunobu.

After the death of the Kano family head Mitsunobu, his brother Takanobu led the Kanoha group because his son Sadanobu KANO (1597 - 1623) was only 12 years of age. Under the feudal system, the family line of Sadanobu, Mitsunobu's first son, was supposed to be the head of family; however, Sadanobu died without an heir at the age of just 27, so after that the legitimacy of the Kano family was the descendant of Takanobu till the end of the Edo period. Takanobu had three sons--Morinobu (Tanyu 1602 - 1674), Naonobu KANO (1607 - 1650) and Yasunobu KANO(1613 - 1685)--and they respectively became the earliest ancestor of the Kajibashi Kano family, Kobikicho Kano family and Nakabashi Kano family. Although the youngest son, Yasunobu, succeeded as the Kano head of family as an adopted son of Sadanobu (mentioned above), the most renowned painter was Morinobu (also known as Tanyu).

Morinobu later became a priest and called himself Tanyusai; as a painter he is known as Tanyu KANO. He eventually moved to Edo and solidified the position of the Kanoha group in the art world more as the official painter of the Edo shogunate.

Tanyu exercised his painting talent from childhood; in 1612, he met Ieyasu TOKUNAGA in Sunpu at the age of 11 and obtained a residence in Edo Kajibashi Mongai in 1621, subsequent to which he worked based in Edo and energetically created screen paintings in castles and large temples.

Among Tanyu's works, the screen paintings in the Edo and Osaka castles were lost with the buildings, but the screen paintings (ink paintings) in Jorakuden of Nagoya Castle are existent, having avoided an air raid during World War II because they had been removed from the building and evacuated; additionally, the screen paintings in Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle and the hojo of Daitoku-ji Temple are among his best existent works. He created various kinds of works, including hanging rolls, picture scrolls and folding screens, as well as these large paintings. He created the screen paintings in Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle when he was young (25 years of age), and they showed dynamism in Eitoku's style; however, the screen paintings in Daitoku-ji Temple, which he created later in his life (mainly with ink and water), display a calm approach with abundant use of blank space. He had works in the Yamatoe style in picture scrolls and folding screens as well.

Tanyu emphasized sketches and the copying of ancient paintings; consequently, he left numerous sketch books and reproduction books. Many of Tanyu's copies of ancient paintings (called 'Tanyu Reduction') are existent, which are now part of museums and collections around the nation, and they include many copies of ancient paintings whose originals are now lost, so they are valuable as data for the study of Japanese art history.

The Middle Edo Period and Later

The Kanoha group during the Edo period was a huge painting group comprised of a consanguinity group mainly with the head family of the Kano family and numerous disciples around the nation, thus comprising a hierarchy. They are clearly ranked: under the most prestigious four families (called 'inner court painters') there are about 15 families less prestigious called 'outer court painters' and then the 'Machi Kano painters' who catered to the demands of townspeople instead of the Imperial Court or temples and shrines; and consequently their influence spread throughout the nation. The powers of the time sought the stability and continuity of feudal society, and the paintings for public places such as Edo Castle were supposed to be painted in the style of traditional painting examples; they were not intended to be unique. In order to create numbers of screen paintings, one must work in a group with all the disciples; therefore, in order to make group work easier, the ability to learn from painting examples was valued more than one's individuality as a painter. In this respect it is undeniable that the paintings of the Kanoha group lack individuality and originality.

It is said that the inner court painters ranked with Hatamoto and were allowed 'audience' with the Shogun as well as belting on a sword, which implies a high status. The four families of the inner court painters are the Kajibashi family, with lineage of Tanyu (the first son of Takanobu KANO); the Kobikicho family (called Takekawa-cho family at the time), with lineage of Naonobu (the second son of Takanobu); the Nakabashi family with lineage of Yasunobu (the third son of Takanobu); and the Hamacho family, with lineage of Minenobu KANO (1662 - 1708) (Minenobu is the second son of Tsunenobu KANO, the first son of Naonobu KANO). Because Tanyu had no child, he adopted Toun (Masunobu KANO 1625 - 1694), the son of Ryujo GOTO, a swordsmith. Later, Morimasa KANO (1653 - 1718) who was his biological son (born after Tanyu turned 50) succeeded him, but subsequently this lineage had no distinguished painter. Among the numerous disciples of Tanyu, Morikage KUSUMI (birth and death dates unknown), the creator of "Enjoying the Cool of the Evening Under the Moonflower Trellis," is renowned. Morikage was for some reason expelled from the Kanoha group; he worked in the Kanazawa area later, but his records aren't completely clear.

As stated previously, the head family of Kano was succeeded by the Nakabashi Family of Yasunobu, a brother of Tanyu. Tokinobu KANO (1642 - 1678), a son of Yasunobu, died in his thirties, and his son Ujinobu KANO (1675 - 1724) succeeded the family estate; however, subsequently this lineage had no distinguished painter. Itcho HANABUSA (1652 - 1724), who was popular based on his sophisticated painting style, was a disciple of Yasunobu. The family that produced relatively prominent painters until the end of the Edo period among the four families of the inner court painters is the Kobikicho family, of Naonobu's lineage. This family line produced Tsunenobu KANO (1636 - 1713), the heir of Naonobu, and Tsunenobu's sons, Chikanobu KANO (1660 - 1728) and Minenobu KANO (1662 - 1708). Minenobu won the favor of the Shogun Ienobu TOKUGAWA, and he later gained independence as 'Hamacho family,' which was ranked as one of the inner court painter families. Besides them, Koi KANO (date of birth unknown - 1636) was not related by blood to the Kano family but, along with his brothers, was a master of Tanyu; he was allowed to use the surname of Kano due to his achievements, and he worked for the Kishu Tokugawa family.

Meanwhile, a group called 'Kyo Kano' remained active in Kyoto, and Sanraku KANO (1559 - 1635), a disciple of Eitoku KANO, was the pillar of the group. Sanraku was from the Kimura clan in Omi, the vassal of Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI; his original name was Mitsuyori KIMURA. His best works are "Peonies" and "Red and White Plum Trees" in the main house of Kyoto Daikaku-ji Temple, and they have colorful and decorative pictures on a golden base. Sansetsu KANO (1589/90 - 1651), the husband of Sanraku's daughter, created the screen paintings in Tenkyuin, Myoshin-ji Temple as well as some paintings of folding screens, which are still in existence. He had a distinctive painting style unique among painters of the Kanoha group, such as distinct shapes of trees and rocks, as well as the completeness of detail. The essay on paintings made by Sansetsu and edited by his son Eino KANO (1631 - 1697) is entitled "Honchogashi," the first full-fledge painting history book by a Japanese.

The Kobikicho family produced Michinobu KANO (Michinobu EISENIN (1730 - 1790)), Korenobu KANO (Korenobu YOSENIN (1753 - 1808)), Naganobu KANO (Naganobu ISENIN (1775 - 1828)) and Osanobu KANO (Osanobu SEISENIN (1786 - 1846)) during the late Edo period. Osanobu SEISENIN led the creation of numerous screen paintings as a master of the Kanoha group during the reconstruction of the Nishinomaru and Honmaru palaces of Edo Castle, which had burned down in 1838 and again in 1844. Although the paintings are no longer in existence, numerous designs are in the possession of the Tokyo National Museum. SEISENIN also endeavored to copy and collect ancient paintings. Although the painters of the Kanoha group in the late Edo period are not well appreciated generally, there is a move to reappraise SEISENIN as the progress of the study after the late twentieth century recognizes that he was a painter with good technique who eagerly studied art from ancient paintings and on to the new painting movement at the end of the Edo period.

Hogai KANO (born in Shimonoseki, 1828 - 1888), a leading figure of the Japanese art world during the early Meiji period, like Gaho HASHIMOTO (born in Kawagoe, 1835 - 1908), was a disciple of Tadanobu KANO (Tadanobu SHOSEN'IN 1823 - 1880), the next generation of SEISENIN. Both Hogai and Gaho were from painter families of the Kanoha group. The historical role of the Kanoha group as a professional painter group finished as its patron, the Edo shogunate, ended.

[Original Japanese]