Yamamoto Shunkyo (1871-1933)
North American Landscape
Hanging scroll, ink and light color on silk with original mount and box
44 1/4 x 15 3/4 inches
Format: Hanging scroll
Box: Original Box
Box Signed: Shunkyo jidai (“made by Shunkyo himself”)
In this hanging scroll, nihonga-style painter Yamamoto Shunkyo has rendered a scene of towering mountains in a wintry landscape. While employing the ink wash-based techniques of centuries of ink painters before him, Shunkyo’s approach to the depths of winter brings a certain finesse not found elsewhere. Snowy peaks and cloudy skies are not just left in reserve, but rather emerge icy and stark from passages of aizumi grays and blues.
This approach, rooted in Japanese adaptations of Song Dynasty China ink technique, but incorporating Western modes of perspective, is what makes Shunkyo peerless Japanese painting of the modern period. Born in Zeze, a small town on the shores of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, Shunkyo moved to Kyoto at a young age to study with painter Nomura Bunkyō (1854-1911). Upon Bunkyō’s moving to Tokyo, Shunkyo stayed on in Kyoto under the tutelage of painter Mori Kansai (1814-1894). Kansai’s artistic lineage stretched back to Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), who in his own time adopted many ideas of Western realism that entered Japan through the port of Nagasaki. This influence is visible in Kansai’s work, and likewise in Shunkyo’s, especially his earlier paintings.
The Maruyama-Shijō school influence is less visible in this painting, perhaps because of its subject matter; the pines and rocks of California’s Yosemite National Park do not lend themselves to Maruyama-Shijō techniques. The paper in the wooden storage box, original to the painting, reads “sketch of North American scenery, Yosemite Valley” along with an unintelligible line which may refer to the original owner. As Shunkyo firmly believed in shasei “sketching from life,” he would not force techniques where they were not applicable.
As for how Shunkyo made it to California, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce sent him to the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition. He traveled around the United States before returning to Japan, and upon his return, painted several views of the American countryside, including the famous “Snow in the Rockies” commissioned by the Takashimaya department store, and likely this composition as well.
Shunkyo was influential in his singularity; not only did he run a successful private painting school with annual exhibitions in Kyoto’s Okazaki Park, but was hired as an instructor at the high-profile Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts and the Kyoto Municipal Special School of Painting, and was appointed as a judge for the first Ministry of Education Arts Exhibition (or “Bunten”) in 1906. An eccentric symbol of naturalized Western influence in a rapidly modernizing Japan, always impeccably dressed in a Western suit as opposed to the traditional kimono of his colleagues, in the latter half of his career he would continue to incorporate Western elements, like boneless painting in color and the use of foreign pigments.
His approach to painting, eccentric but respected at the time, would heavily influence the next generation of nihonga artists.