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Patronage and Aesthetics in his Life and Art

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    Kano Tanyu: Patronage and Aesthetics in his Life and Art

    This essay – discussing the life in art of Kano Tanyu (1602- 1674) – will argue that Tanyu represents a classic example of the function of patronage in the production of art. In 17th century Japan the styles and subjects of art differed depending upon the class who were to be the designated audience for the art. The Kano family had tied its fortunes to the ruling Tokugawa clan from an early date; Tanyu's artist father having moved to Edo at the order of the shogun. This patronage was key to the Kano family's prominence both socially and artistically, as the daimyos of the lesser courts throughout the country copied the official art and styles of the shogunate (Paine & Soper, 202).

    Kano Tanyu realized early in his career that not only had the family lost favour at court under his uncle, but that this patronage was essential to the family's prosperity. It is noteworthy, for example, that Tanyu had interviews with the shoguns Ieyasu and Hidetada at the ages of ten and twelve, and became official court painter to the shogunate at the age of fifteen in 1617 (Mason, 253). Clearly, his family's long association with the Tokugawa clan lay at the root of this early sign of official favour. However, in the course of his life-long association with the shogunate Tanyu was to rise further and further in favour suggesting that there was more to his popularity with the Tokugawa clan than simply court politics.

    It may be argued that Kano Tanyu's art served as something of a mirror reflecting the values and tastes of Japan's ruling house. His art – termed by one scholar the "Tokugawa-Kano orthodoxy" (Mason, 253) – tended to be conservative in theme and execution; avoiding the innovation and boldness of the past. Consequently, the work of Tanyu, and of the later Kano school whose "rules" he set out, is not held in high regard by modern critics. However, throughout the Edo period the Kano style was the standard against which the works of all other artists were measured (Mason, 253). Thus patronage, while important to the success and survival of an artist, may actually detract from his aesthetic qualities.

    Tanyu's work reflected not only the values of the Tokugawa clan but their policies as well. Note, for example, how in one of his best works Tanyu painted on a pair of screens the Four Classes – soldiers, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants – into which the Japanese society was rigidly defined. While the theme is clearly conservative, so too was Tanyu's execution of this commission which is marked by elegance and restraint instead of boldness or brilliance (Paine & Soper, 203-204). Modern scholars have been critical of this aesthetic conservatism. In the words of one, Kano Tanyu

    was a gifted, facile artist whose output was enormous, but in the last analysis he was little more than an eclectic who used the manner of his predecessors such as Motonobu, Eitoku, Sesshu and the great Chinese masters of the Sung dynasty without contributing much 3 that was distinctive or new. (Munsterberg, 147)

    However, it was precisely those qualities in his art that modern critics find uninteresting that earned him the favour of the Tokugawa house. In 1621 Tanyu was given a number of properties in Edo and Kyoto for himself and his family. Over the course of the next decades he would paint various castles belonging to the shogun, and several times painted in the imperial palace at Kyoto itself. In 1638 he was honoured with the Buddhist title of "Hogen", and in 1665 was made "Hoin"; a court position at the lower grade of the fourth rank. These signs of favour were a result of the degree to which his art appealed to the Tokugawa clan. As one critic notes: "The appreciation lavished on him shows how thoroughly he expressed the feelings of the age in which he lived" (Paine & Soper, 203).

    Consider, for example, Tanyu's painting on the theme of the Teikan zu (The Mirror for Emperors), a popular Confucian Chinese depiction of good and bad rulers, for the interview room of Nagoya Castle, where the shogun was staying on his way to Kyoto in 1634. This theme was one of the most popular for daimyo castles in the early 17th century, but Tanyu's treatment is interesting for how he depicts the nature and action of political power. In one illustration from the Teikan zu, telling the story of the Emperor Wen who believed that nonessential expenditure was unjustifiable 4 and so cancelled his own order for a lavish tower, Tanyu spread the composition across four fusuma panels. In the second panel we see the wise, fiscally-conservative emperor in his court talking to advisors while a servant kneels at his feet to take his orders to waiting workmen. This picture symbolically isolates the position of the emperor from that of his subject, as the "organization of rocks, trees, and cloud motifs clearly sets off the world of the emperor from that of the carpenters, truly a realm above the clouds" (Mason, 253).

    It is not surprising that such a work would have pleased the shogun. Moreover, its presence in the interview room suggests that its intended audience was not only the shogun, but the court and its supplicants as well. It may thus be considered a work of propaganda, promoting the view of Japan's de facto ruling house (although the Emperor continued to possess figurehead de jure power) as being separate and above the world of common people. Find more essays at

    In aesthetic terms, these panels are interesting for their emphasis upon decorative elements as opposed to the logical realism of earlier narrative painting. Thus, for example, there is a pathway leading to nowhere amid the rocks to the right of the waiting workmen on the third screen, and a torrent of rushing water appearing arbitrarily with no significance to the rest of the painting. This lack of interest in logical accuracy or narrative realism was a characteristic of Tanyu's art. Perhaps sensing that his patrons did not much care for the intricacies of 5 a work as long as it was pleasing, Tanyu favoured visually interesting techniques and pleasing compositions over the passion for realistic detail that preoccupied Japanese painters of earlier centuries (Mason, 253-54).

    In conclusion, it is clear that one cannot consider the art of Kano Tanyu without considering the impact that the official patronage of the shogunate had on his art and life. His work was profoundly shaped by the policies and interests of the ruling Tokugawa clan, and while it therefore found favour and earned him prominence, it seems to have detracted from his reputation in terms of the artistic history of Japan.


    • Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Tokyo: Harry Abrams, 1993.
    • Munsterberg, Hugo. The Arts of Japan: An Illustrated History. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1963.
    • Paine, Robert Treat and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.

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