Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


A balance of styles

By B. F. Abiko / May 11, 1983



This portrait of the nineteenth-century artist Takaku Aigai, by his contemporary and friend Tsubaki Chinzan, merits a unique place in Japanese art history. Looking at the painting, one notices immediately how difficult it is to classify as either a purely Eastern or Western work; furthermore, upon realizing this is a painting of the last century, one wonders why there were not more portraits like this one, why this one is unique rather than the beginning of a tradition. Let us look back and see how this portrait came about and why it stands alone.

Skip to next paragraph

Chinzan was a samurai artist, a member of the governing military elite, working and painting in Tokyo (called Edo until 1868). Most such painters, Chinzan included, held official posts in their domain governments, relegating painting to an avocation. The majority of their paintings were, therefore, usually done for their own pleasure or commissioned by members of their own samurai class. Generally, these were copies or reworkings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works being imported from mainland China. This style was of particular interest to the samurai class for which Chinese learning constituted a major part of their education.

Chinzan, however, was introduced to Western painting styles and portraiture through illustrations in Dutch books made available to him by his teachers, Tani Buncho and Watanabe Kazan, who had since acquired extensive collections. The immediacy and realism found in Western portraiture captured the imagination of both Kazan and Chinzan, inspiring them to integrate a new way of looking at their sitters into traditional portrait painting techniques. This is a fine example of their new vision.

Until their day, portraiture had maintained a long and rather staid tradition , most often serving the interests of politics and religion. Official portraits of imperial and military leaders and the patriarchs of the Zen Buddhist sect were long frozen in the canons of political, religious, and painting formats. These people were represented by their rank rather than by their individuality. Poses, gestures, robes, fixtures, all followed established patterns.

Here we find Chinzan breaking away from old concepts and forging new ways of looking: namely, painting his subject as he appeared in nature rather than according to a set of artistic models. Consequently, Chinzan's portrait of his friend is alive, relaxed and approachable. He is seated cross-legged, a brush poised in his right hand, leaning on his thigh. The delicate pastel tones of green and blue coloring the jacket reinforced the warmth of the flesh tones in the face and hands. Using a traditional technique, tarashikomim - allowing a dab of paint to spread on a watery surface - to create texture, he achieved the subtle shading, even tactile quality, of the collar. With a finely pointed brush , he outlined the facial features, and the thinning hairs drawn to the back of the head; delicate ink tones suggest the shadow of a beard. This combination of direct observation and the use of traditional materials, gives the painting its ease and its immediacy.

The reason Chinzan was able to produce such a living portrait had to do with the special relationship between the two men. Aigai came to Edo in 1816 from his birthplace in an eastern province to pursue an artistic career. In the capital he joined the circle of painters studying with the master samurai artist, Tani Buncho, whose Western art book collection was mentioned above. It was in Buncho's studio that he became acquainted with two other Buncho proteges, Watanabe Kazan and Chinzan. Eventually more than friendship and mutual interest in the arts bound these three men together. In 1839, when Kazan was arrested by authorities of the central government and charged with meddling in government affairs, Chinzan and Aigai labored vainly to obtain his release from prison. Their personal loyalty to Kazan tightened their own bonds at a time of political intrigue and personal factioning.

Aigai died prematurely at age forty-seven. Chinzan completed this painting in 1845 for the second year memorial of his passing, celebrated according to the Buddhist tradition. He drew on several sketches, made during Aigai's lifetime, for his preliminary studies. It is said that the robe was never changed; only the face did he repeat over and again to achieve its immediacy. Had this painting been of a political or religious figure, Chinzan might have been bound by tradition. As it was, since Aigai was of the commoner class, Chinzan could draw from the best of both traditions to paint his friend as he wished him to be remembered.

This synthesis of Eastern and Western painting techniques had permeated many landscapes and still lifes by the mid-nineteenth century, but in portraiture, none embraced the two traditions more thoroughly than did Chinzan. Even by the 1920s, when many Japanese painters experimented with Western-type portraiture in oils, the results were never so comfortably integrated into a purely Japanese expression. What makes this portrait quite extraordinary is that, like a metaphor which so perfectly expresses an image in language, this painting adds a particular dimension to the vocabulary of Japanese art, in the harmonious joining of Eastern and Western painting concepts. Within a few decades, the wholesale importing of Western painting would create a dichotomy between the two sets of techniques, losing for a long while this most delicate balance.