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Master of the Brush: Kanō Tan’yū’s sublime paintings

Portrait of the artist
Courtesy: Wiki Commons

Kanō Tan’yū (1602-1674) is regarded as one of the greatest painters of Japan from the early Edo period. He was born into an elite family of artists of the Kanō surname associated with the Kanō school of painting and had inherited an artistic legacy that he would later take into newer grounds. His grandfather, Kanō Eitoku, was a prominent painter known for his artwork on screens whose list of patrons included Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Kanō Tan’yū continued the tradition, restoring the Kanō name to its former heights of glory through his brilliant monochromatic and gold-leaf paintings that would later go on to be recognized as Japan’s most treasured artworks.

Kanō Tan’yū’s talents were recognized at an early age and he was appointed to be the Tokugawa shogunate’s first official painter at the age of 17. This prestigious title of goyō-eshi enabled the artist to take creative liberties and he received many significant commissions from powerful political figures and wealthy patrons for large-scale works to be displayed at various castles like the Edo Castle, Osaka Castle,and Nagoya Castle. These large-scale works, consisting mostly of painted screens and panels around the castles, are the painter’s most famous pieces, alongside a yamato-e work that follows the life of the first Tokugawa shōgun Ieyasu.

Depiction of Tiger with Gold details
Courtesy: Fuji Arts

Tan’yū’s work was highly influenced by the dramatic changes that were taking place in Japan during his lifetime. Japan was transitioning from a period of civil unrest and war to a time of relative stability and prosperity under the Tokugawa shogunate. Tanyu’s art reflects this shift, as he began to incorporate more peaceful and serene subjects into his work, such as landscapes, flowers, and birds. Tan’yū’s animals are majestic, his eagles carrying the regality of royalty, his tigers appearing to leap against the grim screens of the panels that contain them. There is a dimensionality to his paintings that leave the confines of the panel, and this effect is due to the techniques the painter used.

The masterful brushwork Courtesy: Mural Art
Landscape in Moonlight
Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tan’yū also extensively used the gold leaf, which was a characteristic technique employed by former predecessors of Kanō tradition. The use of the gold leaf was an interesting technique that enabled Tan’yū to give his paintings a feeling of sublimity as the gold, used to represent water, clouds and other elements of the background, would reflect light indoors. Since most of his works were screens or panels, this would help in brightening the castle’s darker indoors, as the gold painted panels sparkled.

Aside from his vibrant and gold leaf paintings, Kanō Tan’yū is known for his monochromatic work. He shifted the direction of the Kanō school, and reclaimed the subdued tones, minimal colours and simpler themes that adhered to the Confucian values. This shift to the monochromes is a return to the stylistic oeuvre of the early days at the Kanō school, but Tan’yū transformed it with his own idiosyncratic brushwork. He was also renowned for his skill in calligraphy, and many of his paintings feature beautifully executed text in addition to his visual art.

A painting by Tanyu
Courtesy: WIki Commons

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