From the Edo era to the beginning of the 20th century: the artistic education of women painters

13.10.2023 |

Okamura Masako, Temari, 1895, lythograph, Kosetsu Memorial Museum, Jissen Women’s Univeristiy

Introduction: On Nihonga

Using its participation in the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair as impetus, the Meiji government introduced the concept of “art” (bijutsu) from Europe, adopting institutions for art education and art exhibitions. The Art School of the Ministry of Public Works (Kōbu Bijutsu Gakkō), which was founded in 1876, was the first school to offer a Western-style art education with Italian teachers. Though the school closed in 1882, a former student, Koyama Shōtarō (1857–1916)1 opened a private painting school, the Fudōsha, in order to foster the talents of the next generation of artists. Additionally, there were those who continued their studies abroad in Europe, and, thus, the early yōga (or seiyōga, that is, Western-style) painters went out into the world.

In 1888 the Meiji government opened the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō), resuming state-offered arts education once more. A painting department was established at the school, but a Western-style art education was not initially offered. Under the guidance of Okakura Tenshin (1862–1913), Yokoyama Taikan (1868–1958), Shunsō Hishida (1874–1911) and others began producing paintings using traditions and techniques derived from the Kanō school of painting while also incorporating spatial and colour expressions that evoke Western painting. Against the backdrop of rising nationalism, this new, modern painting came to be called Nihonga (Japanese-style painting). In 1896, when the Tokyo School of Fine Arts established a Western painting department, it was organised into two divisions, Nihonga and Western painting. In the beginning, the concept of Nihonga did not spread much beyond Tokyo, and traditional schools of painting, such as the Nanga and Maruyama-Shijō schools, continued to produce work in the provinces. In 1907, however, when the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture established its public exhibition and invited submissions from throughout the country, entries were divided into three categories: Nihonga, seiyōga, and sculpture. This established the coexistence of Nihonga and seiyōga within Japanese modern painting. Nihonga has since become a general term for paintings, from those of the traditional schools to the modern attempts of Yokoyama Taikan and his contemporaries.  

Women artists and art education

Learning within the family

The highest rank possible for Edo-period painters was that of oku eshi, an official who served the shogunate, painting directly for them as part of their official duties. Every domain employed their own official painter (goyō eshi), and these were generally hereditary positions held by those belonging to the warrior class. These painters, all men, were arranged in a pyramid-style organisation, with students gathered under them. Much like medieval Europe, women only had the opportunity to learn painting in earnest when their fathers, brothers or husbands themselves were painters. One example of this was Kiyohara Yukinobu (1643–1682), who left behind an exceptionally large body of work, including depictions of women, and remains a celebrated figure. Her father was a student of the official painter Kanō Tan’yū (1602–1674), and her mother was related to him. From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, there was an increase in the number of women who, thanks to a welcoming intellectual environment, produced paintings in the private sector. Within the Nanga school, examples include Ike Gyokuran (1727–1784), the wife of Ike no Taiga (1723–1776); the wife of Tani Bunchō (1763–1840), Kankan (1769–1799), and his sister, Shun’ei (1772–1832); and Chō Kōran (1804–1879), wife of the Chinese poet Yanagawa Seigan (1789–1858). In the field of ukiyo-e, Katsushika Ōi (c. 1800–1866), daughter of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), left behind a number of excellent paintings.2 In addition, there are examples of bokuran – sumi ink paintings of orchids, which were considered appropriate subjects for women in China – among the works of women Nanga painters. These women also painted subjects painted by men, and there do not seem to have been circumstances in which women’s choice of subject or technique was limited.

From the Edo era to the beginning of the 20th century: the artistic education of women painters - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Yuka Watanabe, Yōji-zu [Child], 1893, oil on canvas, 57.8 × 84 cm, Yokohama Museum of Art

Even following the onset of the Meiji period, a number of women learned painting from family members and subsequently became artists in their own right. Watanabe Yūkō (née Goseda; 1856–1942) learned watercolour and oil painting from her father, Hōryū (1827–1892), and brother, Yoshimatsu (1855–1915). Her entire family, including her husband, were employed as professional painters, and Y. Watanabe exhibited her oil painting, Infant (Yōji zu), in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Yoshida Fujio (1887–1987), a yōga painter like her father, went to Tokyo with her adopted brother (and later husband), Hiroshi (1876–1950), to study at S. Koyama’s Fudōsha and also received instruction from her husband while there. Kametaka Fumiko (née Watanabe; 1886–1977) was also the daughter of a professional painter, Watanabe Hōshū (1863–1915). She studied at the Private Women’s School of Fine Arts (Joshi Bijutsu Gakkō, now the Joshibi University of Art and Design), discussed below, and her husband—who was also a painter—was adopted into her family. Following her husband’s untimely death, she supported her family as a painter. Although the hereditary systems of painters had disappeared in the modern era, yōgapainting remained a new and unique artistic technique in the Meiji period, and it is thus likely that F. Kametaka inherited the family painting business. There are also examples of Nihonga artists, such as Shima Seien (1892–1970), who learned from their fathers and brothers, but with the rise of private painting schools opened by individual artists, it became easier to take individual instruction directly from painters outside the family.

Women’s emancipation

As the social order underwent dramatic changes from the end of the Edo period to the start of the Meiji, a new group of women painter appeared, those who pursued self-study. Okuhara Seiko (1837–1913) was born to a warrior family, went to Tokyo on her own and established her reputation with the support of high-ranking politicians. She dressed like man, adopted a daughter without marrying, eschewed exhibitions, and lived a life of leisurely pursuits. In search of the ideals of Ming and Qing dynasty painting, she repeatedly painted landscapes (sansuiga) and bird-and-flower pictures (kachōga) using ink and light colour washes.

Noguchi Shōhin (1847–1917) lost her father at an early age, and her husband failed at business. She began supporting her family as a professional painter in her teens. Exhibitions in this period served as important opportunities for independent women like S. Noguchi to present their work on equal terms with men. As a Nanga school painter, S. Noguchi exhibited her landscapes and floral paintings (kakiga) at several exhibitions, earning numerous prizes for them. At the same time, in the 1870s and 1880s, she actively produced paintings of beautiful women (bijinga). Though depicted in a uniform manner, the women are shown enjoying the hobbies of the Chinese literati: painting, calligraphy, music and flower arranging. This suggests that such pursuits were necessary components for “beauties” at that time.3 Later, she painted works such as Bijin shōryō zu (Beauty with a Fan; 1887; Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art), that seem to be aimed at an appreciation of the female form. However, through its inclusion of a book this work also suggests women’s intellectual side. Around this period, S. Noguchi received several commissions from the Imperial Household and taught painting to princesses of the household. Following the strengthening of her connection to the Imperial household she was likely restrained from painting “common” beauties. In 1904 she became the first woman to be appointed an Imperial Household Artist (Teishitsu Gigeiin). In 1915 she was chosen to paint the folding screen (byōbu) for Emperor Taishō’s enthronement ceremony. Furthermore, she served as a juror for the Bunten Exhibition—which was founded in 1907—no less than four times. In short, she was a pioneering women artist who achieved success through the modern art system.

From the Edo era to the beginning of the 20th century: the artistic education of women painters - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Okamura Masako, Temari, 1895, lythograph, Kosetsu Memorial Museum, Jissen Women’s Univeristiy

Learning at school

Women were able to study Western-style painting at the Art School of the Ministry of Public Works, although they were put into separate classes from the men. A photograph taken in autumn 1878 to commemorate the departure of Professor Antonio Fontanesi (1818–1882) from Japan features six women. They include Yamashita Rin (1857–1939) and Okamura Masako (née Yamamuro Masako; 1858–1936), both of whom left their hometowns for Tokyo, to study art. Yamashita went to Russia under the auspices of the Eastern Orthodox Church to study icon-making and became an icon painter. Okamura ran a lithographic print shop, Shin’yōdō, with her husband and became a lithographer. Lithographs were popular in the 1880s and 1890s, during which time numerous single prints on various themes, ranging from current affairs to portraits of the Imperial Family, were produced for individual appreciation. Many of these are depictions of geishas dressed up like noble women that incorporate Western-style modes of representation and feature the term “beauty” in the title. M. Okamura on the other hand, created lithographic images of young women who were not geishas using yōga painting techniques and published them herself. Temari (1895) is an accurate depiction of a modern “girl (shōjo)” engaged in the “girlish” handicraft of winding twine around a temari ball. Works such as these were distributed as special editions for the newspaper Jiji Shimpō and shared widely among readers.

Jinnaka Itoko (1860–1943), an oil painter and member of the yōga painting organisation Meiji Bijutsu-kai (Meiji Fine Arts Association), exhibited her work at the Third National Industrial Exhibition and First Bunten Exhibition. As an art teacher, she also taught at the Meiji Women’s School (Meiji Jogakkō), the Private Women’s School of Fine Arts, and the Women’s Higher Normal School (Joshi Kōtō Shihan Gakkō). An art school education was now a crucial means of becoming a painter regardless of family background.<

Gender-segregated art education

The Meiji Government’s enactment of the 1879 Education Order (Kyōikurei) prohibited boys and girls from studying together in the same classroom in all schools above primary.4 This meant that women’s higher education was restricted, sewing courses were added, and an emphasis was placed on chores and childcare in the home. The Tokyo School of Fine Arts, which opened in 1888, was aimed at men. Thus, women’s opportunities to study art were limited. From about the 1900s on, there were an increasing number of art instructors in girls’ schools, many of them women—including Western-style painters like Jinnaka. However, as there were few Western-style painters in the first place, many of these teachers had backgrounds in Nihonga, and this led to an environment in which it was easy to become acquainted with this practice.5

In 1901 the Private Women’s School of Fine Arts (hereafter, the PWSFA) opened, and its departments of Nihonga, Western-style painting, sculpture (chōso), lacquerware (makie), knitting (amimono), silk flower-making (a ōka), embroidery (shishū) and sewing (saihō) were established.6 This finally opened the door for women to undertake professional study of Nihonga and Western-style painting. Kawanabe Kyōsui (1868–1935), who taught briefly during the early days of the Nihonga department, learned the traditional techniques of the Kanō school – such as the handling of pigments – from her father, Kyōsai (1831–1889). She then passed these techniques on at the school, thereby creating a bridge between the early modern and modern periods. K. Kawanabe painted images of women, though she mainly copied numerous works of her father’s. The educational policies of the PWSFA also emphasise learning basic techniques, from traditional brushstrokes to sketching and colour work, by means of copying rather than thinking about the creation of original work. The women who would later become Nihonga artists all enrolled in the private painting schools of renowned Nihonga painters to engage in full-fledged study of the subject. According to PWSFA data from 1913, the total number of graduates since the school’s opening was: 133 from the Nihonga department, 45 from the Western-style painting department, 2 from the sculpture department, 178 from the embroidery department, 162 from the silk flower-making department, 48 from the knitting department and 860 from the sewing department, which attracted an overwhelming number of students. From this we can see that the Western-style painting and sculpture departments were quite small by comparison.
The Western-style painting department included classes with nude model sketching. Though the men wore underwear, Kondō Kōichiro’s (1884–1962) 1916 manga, Kōfū manga (School Spirit; Hakubunkan), features a caricature of women bashfully sketching only their backsides. In School Spirit, women from the PWSFA walk around carrying tools for making yōga sketches and their manner of “boldly going to and fro” is pilloried. The avantgarde painter Katsura Yuki (1913–1991) was interested in Western painting but, at her parents’ behest, first studied Nihonga painting under the artist Shūho Ikegami (1874–1944). Iwasaki Chihiro (1918–1974), who became famous for her children’s illustrations in the post-war period, studied sketching at a private school for women run by the yōga painter Okada Saburōsuke (1869–1939), her intention of studying at the PWSFA having been thwarted by her parents. They insisted she study calligraphy but she later chose a third artistic path: neither yōga nor Nihonga, but watercolour painting.

This article is followed by “Women Nihonga Painters and Bijinga”, published October 13, 2023.

Translated from the Japanese by Sara Sumpter.

In accordance with the practices in force in Japan and the 2019 recommendations of the Japanese government in this area, in this essay, the surname precedes the first name in the French alphabet transcription of Japanese names (NDLT).

For more on women painters of the early modern period, as well as the transitional painters Seiko Okuhara (1837–1913) and Shōhin Noguchi (1847–1917), see Patricia Fister, Kinsei no josei gakatachi: bijutsu to gendā (Japanese women artists of the early modern period: Art and gender) (Kyoto: Shinbunkaku Shuppan, 1994); Botsugo hyakunen Noguchi Shōhin (Shōhin Noguchi: One-hundred years after her death) (Yamanashi: Yamanashi Kenritsu Bijustukan, 2017); and Keiko Nakamachi, “Edo jidai no josei gaka no kenkyū: Jissen Joshi Daigaku Kōsetsu Kinen Shiryōkan shozōhin o chūshin ni (A study of Edo-period women artists: Focusing on works in the collection of the Jissen Women’s University’s Kōsetsu Memorial Museum)”, in Edo jidai no josei gaka, ed. Keiko Nakamachi (Tokyo: Chūō Kōron Bijustu Shuppan, 2023), pp. 3–106.

Kaoru Kojima, “Bunten kaisetsu no zengo ni okeru ‘bijin’ no hyōgen no henyō nitsuite (Regarding the transformation of representations of ‘beauties’ before and after the establishment of the Bunten exhibition)”, Kindai Gasetsu 16 (2007): pp. 31–47.

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, “Gakusei hyakunenshi, san: Meiji shoki no joshi kyōiku (One hundred years of education, part 3: Early Meiji women’s education), accessed August 14, 2023,

Kazuo Kaneko, “Meiji ki chūtōgakkō zuga kyōin no kenkyū (6): Tōkyō-fu (A study of Meiji period secondary school drawing instructors (part 6): Tokyo Prefecture),” Ibaragi Daigaku Kyōiku Gakubu Kyōiku Kenkyūjo Kiyō 22 (1990): pp. 71–80.

For more on the PWSFA, see Joshi Bijutsu Daigaku hyakunenshi (One hundred years of the Joshibi University of Art and Design), ed. Joshi Bijutsu Daigaku Hyakushūnen Henshū Iinkai (Tokyo: Joshi Bijutsu Daigaku, 2003).

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How to cite this article:
Kojima Kaoru, "From the Edo era to the beginning of the 20th century: the artistic education of women painters." In Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions magazine, . URL : Accessed 20 July 2024

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