Akita Ranga (Akita Dutch-style painting) (秋田蘭画)

Akita Ranga is a genre of Japanese painting in a semi-Western style from the Edo period that was adopted by the lord and statesmen of the Kubota clan (the Akita clan); paintings in this style were composed using techniques of Western paintings with traditional Japanese drawing materials. It is also called the School of Akita. The genre was established by the Kubota clan between 1772 and 1781, but died out between 1781 and 1789 due to a lack of successors. However, it is said that the extremity of its method of perspective had a large effect on later art known as ukiyoe (woodblock prints depicting everyday life of the common people). Major Akita Ranga painters were a statesman named Naotake ODANO (1750 - 1780), a feudal lord named Shozan SATAKE (1748 - 1785) and a member of his family named Yoshimi SATAKE (1749 - 1800).

Characteristics and background

Many Akita Ranga paintings used traditional Eastern styles of painting by using silk fabric colors and Kakehaba (Japanese pigments) while adopting Western painting techniques, which included Western-style themes, such as landscapes and still-lifes, and used such techniques as shadowing and aerial perspective. The works were often in oblong composition, in many cases with flowers, birds and still objects painted in the foreground in deep colors, and landscapes, such as waterfronts, painted in the background, or nothing but light colors to denote a feeling of distance. Prussian blue was also adopted as an imported color.

It has been pointed out that the popularity of Akita Ranga spread from Yoshimune TOKUGAWA's Dutch study promotions, the popularity of the Nanbin School and hobbyists of natural history of the time. Akita Ranga was also influenced by the Nanbin School, meaning that it was a unique painting style created by mixing Japanese, Chinese and Western styles.


Western paintings were originally imported as a part of Dutch studies in Japan. The techniques of Western paintings were studied by Gennai HIRAGA, a scholar of Dutch studies, by copying the illustrations in books, and since he painted in his own way without any direct guidance from Westerners, his study of the art was no better than painting as a hobby.

In the meantime, the Kubota clan, who were focused on mine development as a measure to reconstruct their finances, invited Gennai to be a mine engineer in August of 1773. According to a legend, Gennai stayed the night at the home of Goi family, a sake a brewer who lived in the castle town of Kakunodate, on the way to Ani-machi. Impressed by a screen painting in the home, Gennai summoned the artist named Naotake and said to him, 'Try to paint the rice cake offering as if looking at it from above,' and when Naotake painted only a double circle, Gennai exclaimed, 'I cannot tell if that is the tray or the rice cake,' and immediately taught him a method of painting with shadows. At the time, Naotake was 24 years old and Gennai was 45 years old.

After inspecting Ani and Odate and having an audience with the feudal lord Shozan (Yoshiatsu) SATAKE, Gennai left the Kubota domain on December 12 of the same year and returned to Edo. Soon afterwards, Naotake was promoted to 'product agent under Gennai' and 'collector (selector) of copper mine products,' and he departed from Kakunodate for Edo on January 12, 1774 and lodged with Gennai. Since up until that time Naotake had been a vassal (retainer of a vassal) of the Northern House of the Satake clan, this appointment promoted him to a direct vassal of the main clan. During his stay in Edo in 1774, Naotake drew paintings for "Kaitai Shinsho" (New Text on Anatomy). Also, by copying Western books including Jonston's "Dobutsu Zufu" (Zoological Encyclopedia), he learned techniques of drawing animals such as lions, snakes and horses, which had been a stereotype of Oriental paintings, in three dimensions by using shadow effects. His paintings include 'Toeizan Shinobazu no Ike Zu' (A View of Shinobazuno-ike Pond in Toeizan) (an important cultural property), 'Totaiso Kacho Sansui Zu' (Totaiso [a Chinese emperor] and a View of Flowers, Birds, Hills, and Water) (an important cultural property at the Akita Museum of Modern Art), 'Totaiso Zu' (a painting of Totaiso, a Chinese emperor) (at the Akita Senshu Museum of Art) and 'Enoshima Zu' (A View of Enoshima) (at the Museum of Yamato Bunkakan), and it is also said that Naotake taught his techniques to Kokan SHIBA.

Shozan SATAKE, a feudal lord known for his association with the lord of the Kumamoto clan Shigekata HOSOKAWA who was known for his hot temper, Yoshimi SATAKE, the family head of the Northern House of the Satake clan (the Keeper of Kakunodate-jo Castle), as well as statesmen including Tadakuni TASHIRO, Katsutaka OGITSU, Torakichi SUGAWARA and Torazo SUGAWARA, a painter of the Kubota clan, were all among Naotake's painting disciples. Akita Ranga became popular in a kind of salon atmosphere among the lords and vassals.

Shozan in particular was highly praised by Gennai HIRAGA and the lord of the Satsuma clan Shigehide SHIMAZU for his painting talent. Shozan's paintings include 'Matsu ni Karadori Zu' (A Painting of Foreign-bred Bird on Pine) (an important cultural property in a private collection), 'Kakitsubata ni Hasami Zu' (A Painting of Rabbit-ear Iris and Scissors) (at Kobe City Museum), 'Take ni Buncho Zu' (A Painting of a Paddy Bird on a Bamboo) (at Akita Senshu Museum of Art), and 'Kozan Fukei Zu' (A View of a Mountain and a Lake). In addition, he also wrote the first books on theories of Western-style painting in Japan, such as "Gaho Koryo" (Summary of Painting Laws) and "Gazu Rikai" (Understanding Painting) in September of 1778, which became the theoretical fulcrum point of Akita Ranga. An enormous amount of his sketches were dedicated in "Satake Shozan Shaseicho" (at Akita Senshu Museum of Art).

At the end of 1779, however, Naotake was suddenly ordered to refrain from making public appearances and died in June of the following year. There is an additional theory indicating an incident of bloodshed involving Gennai but the details are unknown. After Shozan died five years later, Akita Ranga lost its popularity and gradually fell out of practice; however, its lineage and style were inherited by Kokan SHIBA, becoming further westernized and also came to have an influence on Denzen AODO from Sukagawa.

Introduction of Akita Ranga

The person to bring Akita Ranga to a wide audience was Hyakusui HIRAFUKU, who was a Japanese-style painter from the same prefecture as Naotake and had great success from the end of the Meiji period to the early Showa period. In 1930, Hyakusui introduced Akita Ranga with a large paper edition of an art collection book called "Nihon Yoga Shoko" (The Dawn of Japanese and Western Paintings). Hyakusui was also a poet of the Araragi School and wrote the following seven tanka.

You were born as the Lord of Dewa in Michinoku, that's why you can paint Dutch paintings. The paintings of the Lord are magnanimous with Dutch techniques and Japanese style. This carefully painted picture has the artist's signature and seal of Shozan in Dutch letters. The one who adopted Dutch style painting first was my countryman, Naotake ODANO. The painting is realistic with its contrast between light and shadow; the value of Dutch style makes me laugh. The painting is so detailed that the shadows of arrow bamboo can be seen on the white rabbit. The Dutch-style painting made by one who died at an early age is rare in this world and I look at it repeatedly.

[Original Japanese]