Tosa Mitsuoki

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Illustration of the Genji Monogatari
ch.42 – 匂宮 Niō no Miya ("The Perfumed Prince")
Credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691).

Tosa Mitsuoki (土佐 光起, November 21, 1617 – November 14, 1691) was a Japanese painter.

Tosa Mitsuoki succeeded his father, Tosa Mitsunori (1583–1638), as head of the Tosa school and brought the Tosa school to Kyoto after around 50 years in Sakai. When the school was settled in Sakai, Mitsunori painted for townsmen. The school was not as prolific as it once was when Mitsunobu, who painted many fine scrolls (1434–1525) ran the school. Mitsuoki moved out of Sakai with his father, in 1634 and into the city of Kyoto. There, he hoped to revive the Tosa school to gain status back into the Kyoto court. Around the time of 1654 he gained a position as court painter(edokoro azukari) that had for many years traditionally been held by the Tosa family, but was in possession of the Kano school since the late Muromachi period (1338–1573).

Reclaim to fame[edit]

In 1654, Mitsuoki restored fortune to the family school when he earned the title of the edokoro azukari, which means "head of the court painting bureau". Now the Tosa school was once again the highlight of the court. The school prospered throughout the Edo period, during the years of 1600 to 1868. Mitsuoki can be considered as the last groundbreaking painter of the Tosa school. He was succeeded by a long line of painters, starting with his son, Mitsunari (1646–1710). Many of the successors used the same techniques and syle of painting as Mitsuoki, which gradually led to their works becoming repetitive throughout the Edo period. The lack of innovation produced many scrolls that could be seen as done by Mitsuoki himself. Another school in effect around the same time called the Kanō school, flourished just as the successors of the Tosa school.

After Death[edit]

The later Tosa style of the eighteenth century showed very little strength or promise due to loss of patrons and overshadowing from the Kanō school. The school was affected by the growing popularity of the study of Japanese history and the rise of the imperial family. Around the nineteenth century, there was a distinct revival under two artist named Tanaka Totsugen and Reizei Tamechika who specialized in repeating Mitsuoki’s work. Their work reaffirmed the Japanese spirit of Yamato-e, which they made many copies. Their art reflected political philosophy and sometimes had a historical connecting because several of the artists were also faithful to the imperial cause. The two artists were revivalists, and got so caught up in painting historical figures, that they overlooked the special greatness of the early artists who specialized in movement and realism. The most successful successors invented their own artistic style but kept the predecessors tradition of painting in strong color with an intense feeling of natural beauty.


Mitsuoki was known for reintroducing the Yamato-e style. Yamato-e (大和絵) is a style of ancient Japanese painting inspired by paintings in the Tang dynasty. It was later reinvented and further refined in the late Heian period. It is considered the classical Japanese style. In the Muromachi period (15th century), the term Yamato-e has been used to show the contrast between it and work from other contemporary Chinese style paintings, which were inspired by Yuan and Sung dynasty Buddhist paintings.

The Yamato-e style often tells narrative stories and themes, sometimes accompanied with text. Other variations of Yamato-e concentrated on showing the beauty of nature, famous places, or the four seasons of winter, fall, spring and summer.

Mitsuoki’s pictures were often on scrolls that can be hung on a wall, otherwise known as kakemono (掛け物) or handscrolls (emakimono) that could be read from right to left with the accompanied story. He also produced many works on folding screen panels that featured up to six panels. Although they had received their name during the Yamato period, Yamato-e works stood for a style and are not restricted to that particular time period. Yamato-e was such a popular style at the time, that it even had a great influence on the Rimpa and ukiyo-e styles. It even had a small influence on the Kano school style.

One of the best Yamato-e painters of the time was Mitsuoki. His paintings reintroduced subject matter into the arts. His urbanized surroundings heavily influenced his style, with a wide angle of art ranging from "Quails and Flowers", to tree and scenery paintings on gold leaf screens. Mitsuoki reinstated the Tosa school style by incorporating the space and light touch somewhat similar to the earlier Song dynasty and Yuan dynasty (AD 960–1279) Chinese court paintings. He also put greater stress on ink brushwork. Mitsuoki had a style that was decorative, refined, and precise all at the same time, and throughout his career he maintained a consistent delivery. The birds and the landscapes were soft and delicate lines formed some inspiring pieces filled with beauty. His light-hearted linework, originality of design, and excellent execution, Mitsuoki combined tones which were bright without hardness, sometimes with touches of gold forming a harmony of color that was hard to find in his era. He became one of the most renowned Japanese exponents of bird-and-flower (kachō) painting in the Chinese court manner and is especially noted in his precise depictions of quail. His flower pieces were elegant, and given some tender sediment. Mitsuoki's sternness of his older style, never lost its dignity, but gained gentleness and tranquility. The Emperor, nobles and rich families collected and preserved his books.

His Works[edit]

  • Kitano Tenjin engi emaki – a picture scroll depicting the chronicle of the Kitano Shrine
  • Itsukushima Matsushima zu-byōbu – Picture Screens of Itsukushima and Matsushima
  • Kiku jun zu – A Quail and Chrysanthemums
  • Quail and Millet Screen
  • Ono no Komachi – Ink and color on silk, hanging scroll
  • Quail and Poem

The Tosa School[edit]

The Tosa school, in its own history, expressly stated that the school founded in the ninth century owed nothing to the influence of China. But the style of the Tosa school looks like it was greatly influenced by Chinese painting. Apart from religious subjects, it occupied a special position in art specializing in the taste of the Court of Kyoto. Quails and Peacocks, cherry tree branches in flower, cocks and hens, Daimyōs with their samurai in gorgeous ceremonial costumes, were painted as time went on with extreme care and patience and attention to detail. As the years went on, their style became more and more precise, almost down to a science. The Tosa painters towards the end of their popularity, lost much of their prestige to artists of the later Kanō school, whose studies included a wider scope and bigger variety of subject matter. The paintings of the Tosa school were distinguished by the elegance and precision of its design, while their counterparts, the Kanō school, was well known for its power and freedom of design.

Tosa School and Kanō School[edit]

If the past works of the Tosa school and Kanō school are closely observed, there is clear proof that both of the traditional schools have a similar way of handling their draftsmanship. Both were patronized from the Japanese courts around the same time period, and specialized in Yamato-e and ukiyo-e paintings. At the same time, they both served different uses within the Edo court. Kanō painters were usually commissioned to paint the screens and hanging scrolls displayed in official audience halls and other public spaces in shōgun and daimyō residences where men gathered and intermixed. The courtly style of the Tosa artists, on the other hand, was usually deemed more appropriate for the decorations of the private rooms occupied by women and children and for the albums and scrolls that were often included in weddings. However, there was a clear stylistic relationship among the members of the two schools. Not just the artwork was similar between the Tosa school and the Kanō school, the family line between the two has even been crossed at one time. The daughter of Tosa Mitsunobu married Kanō Motonobu. After the decline in popularity of the Tosa school during Mitsumochi's period (1496–1559), the Kano school overshadowed it and the Tosa school's artists usually worked under Kano school artists, sometimes helping sketch out final pieces for Kanō artists. The lack of innovation in the Tosa school style made a disconnection with the Japanese public because it did not capture the peoples hopes and dreams.

Arts in Edo during Mitsuoki's life[edit]

After Tokugawa Ieyasu established Edo, the city went into a long period of isolation. The third shōgun of Tokugawa, shut off Japan from the world to make his hold more secure, besides very limited contacts at the port of Nagasaki. Differences of opinion among the Christian missionaries who had been in Japan for nearly a century helped to bring about the exclusionist policy which at around 1637, closed Japan to all foreign interaction. During this time, Edo Japan flourished into a very political economic and artistic center of Japan. It slowly grew to be one of the largest cities of the world, and its art in many ways showed the spirit of the new and boisterous metropolis. This is when Edo saw an emerging middle class. Fortunately the activities of each class, as long as they did not seem to conflict with the prestige of the higher-ranked military clans, were allowed to develop their own social styles and culture. Before this, the arts were usually reserved for the upper class and the more fortunate courts. Artists were not under the Kyoto courts pressure to produce work only for the higher class. In the "floating world", artists were free to select their own style and even their own target audience. With this, arose new types of art appropriate to the interests of merchants and the middle class. Art was no longer reserved for the elite class, now it belonged to whoever could afford it. The Shōgun of Edo and the Kyoto court continued to support the Tosa school as well as the other prominent school of the time, such as the Kano school.


Fujiwara Yukimitsu (藤原 行光) (fl. 1352–1389)
Fujiwara Yukihiro, Tosa Shogen (藤原 行広) (fl. 1406–1434)
Mitsunobu (光信) (1434–1525)
Mitsumochi (光茂) (1496 – ca.1559)
Mitsumoto (光元) (fl. 1530–1569)
Mitsuyoshi (光吉) (1539–1613)
Mitsunori (光則) (1583–1638)
Mitsuoki (光起) (1617–1691)
Mitsunari (光成) (1646–1710)

See also[edit]

Media related to Tosa Mitsuoki at Wikimedia Commons

Bibliography and references[edit]

  • Guth, Christine. Art of Edo Japan the Artist and the city, 1615–1868. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1996.
  • Paine, Robert T. The Pelican History of Art. Penguin Books, 1975.
  • Watson, Professor William. The Great Japan Exhibition: Art of The Edo Period 1600–1868. Royal Academy of Arts/Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981.
  • Minamoto, H. An Illustrated History of Japanese Art. Japan: Kyoto K. Hoshino, 1935.
  • Munsterberg, Hugo. Arts of Japan An Illustrated History. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1957.
  • Swann, Peters C. An Introduction to the Arts of Japan. 15 West 47th Street, New York, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, inc.
  • Tosa school (Japanese painting) (Britannica Online Encyclopedia).

External links[edit]