10 Famous Japanese Artists And Their Masterpieces

Painting has been the preferred form of artistic expression in Japan and Japanese artists have developed various styles along the years, including the sumi-e (ink wash painting) and ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock prints and paintings) styles, which are well known across the world. Kano School and Rimpa School have perhaps been the most prominent schools in Japanese painting history, which has seen many remarkable artists. We look at 10 of the greatest painters of Japan from Tensho Shubun, who was active in early fifteenth century, to Takashi Murakami of present age.

#10 Tensho Shubun

Active:Early 15th Century

Shubun studied Chinese Song Dynasty masters like Xia Gui and Ma Yuan and led the way for painters to develop a Japanese style. He is considered the founder of the sumi-e painting (ink wash painting) and promoted it till it became the national style of the period. He was tutor to many renowned artists including the great Sesshu Toyo and Kano Masanobu, the founder of Kano school of painting. Shubun’s most famous painting is Reading in a Bamboo Grove, which is now designated as a National Treasure in Japan.

Masterpiece: Reading in a Bamboo Grove

Reading In A Bamboo Grove by Tensho Shubun
Reading In A Bamboo Grove

Other Famous Works:-

  • Landscape of the Four Seasons
  • Hue of the water, Light on the peaks
  • Oxherding Series

#9 Tomioka Tessai

Tomioka Tessai
Tomioka Tessai
Lifespan:January 27, 1837 – December 31, 1924

Tessai started his artistic career as a practitioner of bunjinga, or “literati painting” and was the last prominent artist of the movement. Later, Tessai favored the Nihonga style which follows Japanese artistic techniques and conventions as opposed to many other artists of the period who were influenced by western styles. Tessai is known for vibrant colors, bold brushstrokes and grand scale compositions. Tessai was a prolific artist who created around 20,000 paintings. He was popular during his period but reached iconic status only after his death.

Masterpiece: Abe-no-Nakamaro Writing Nostalgic Poem While Moon-viewing

Abe-no-Nakamaro Writing Nostalgic Poem While Moon Viewing by Tomioka Tessai
Abe-no-Nakamaro Writing Nostalgic Poem While Moon Viewing

Other famous works:-

  • Two Divinities Dancing
  • Tomioka Tessai Encountering with Immortal Women
  • Mt.Penglai

#8 Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami
Takashi Murakami
Born:February 1, 1962

Even when he was very young, Murakami was worried with the state of contemporary art in Japan as he believed that it was “a deep appropriation of Western trends.” Murakami pointed out that, unlike the west, Japanese artists have used flat, 2-dimensional imagery for centuries and continue to use it in anime and manga, to this day. He also believed that post-war there was little distinction between high and low art in Japan. Murakami combined the principles underlying the works of traditional Japanese artists with post-war pop culture in Japan to come up with the superflat art movement. Superflat has now become a prominent post-war Japanese art movement and Murakami has become the most famous Japanese painter and sculptor of the 21st century; and is known as the Andy Warhol of the east.

Masterpiece: Smooth Nightmare

Smooth Nightmare by Takashi Murakami
Smooth Nightmare

Other famous works:-

  • My Lonesome Cowboy (sculpture)
  • Tan Tan Bo

#7 Ogata Korin

Lifespan:1658 – June 2, 1716

Korin was one of the most important painters of the Rimpa school. He had utter disregard for naturalism and usual conventions. Korin broke away from traditions and developed an original style of his own with a few simple idealized forms and characteristic bold impressionism. Korin is known for his sense of flat decorative design, feeling for nature and emphasis on abstract color patterns. All these qualities come together in his painting ‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’.

Masterpiece: Red and White Plum Blossoms

Red and white Plum blossoms by Ogata Korin
Red and white Plum blossoms

Other famous works:-

  • Irises screen
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Waves at Matsushima

#6 Hasegawa Tohaku

Lifespan:1539 – March 19, 1610

Founder of the Hasegawa school of Japanese paintings, Tohaku earlier studied under the prestigious Kano school but later developed his own style. He was also influenced by the works of the great master Sesshu Toyo, so much so that he called himself his fifth successor. His rivalry with Kano Eitoku is well known and together they were the greatest artists of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Tohaku is hailed all over Japan for his elegant and beautiful paintings with his multiple works listed as Japanese treasures.

Masterpiece: Pine Trees

Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tohaku
Pine Trees

Other famous works:-

  • Maple
  • Pine tree and flowering plants
  • Picture of Monkey in Dead Trees

#5 Kitagawa Utamaro

Lifespan:1753 – October 31, 1806

One of the most famous artists of ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock prints and paintings) of all time, Utamaro is known all over Japan for making the finest and most evocative portraits of sensuous female beauties, or bijin-ga, in all of ukiyo-e. He, more than anyone else, captured the subtle aspects of personality and transient moods of women in his works. Utamaro is known worldwide for his works and has influenced many artists of Europe’s Impressionism movement, especially with his use of partial views and his emphasis on light and shade.

Masterpiece: Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy; A Collection of Reigning Beauties

A print from the Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy by Kitagawa Utamaro
A print from the Ten Studies in Female Physiognomy

Other famous works:-

  • Great Love Themes of Classical Poetry
  • Twelve Hours in the Pleasure Quarters

#4 Tawaraya Sotatsu

Active:Early 17th Century

Along with Hon’ami Koetsu, Sotatsu is the co-founder of the Rimpa school of Japanese painting. Apart from pioneering a technique called tarashikomi in which one dropped one color into another while the first was still wet; Sotatsu developed an original style of monochrome painting in which the ink was used sensuously as if it were color. Three of his works have been listed as Japanese treasures.

Masterpiece: Six-fold screens depicting episodes from The Tale of Genji

Painting of the chapter Sekiya from The Tale of Genji by Tawaraya Sotatsu
Painting of the chapter Sekiya from The Tale of Genji

Other famous works:-

  • Water fowl in the lotus pond
  • Wind God and Thunder God

#3 Kano Eitoku

Lifespan:February 16, 1543 – October 12, 1590

Kano school was the dominant style of painting in Japan from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and Kano Eitoku is perhaps the most renowned artist of the Kano school. A vastly popular artist of his time, Eitoku received many wealthy patrons and maintained the superiority of his school. His masterpiece is an eight panel Cypress screen which shows the vigor of the Monoyama style, which he is mainly responsible for creating.

Masterpiece: Painting of a Cypress

Painting of a Cypress by Kano Eitoku
Painting of a Cypress

Other famous works:-

  • Scenes in and around the capital
  • Birds and flowers of the four seasons
  • Chinese Guardian Lions

#2 Katsushika Hokusai

Self-Portrait of Katsushika Hokusai
Self-Portrait of Katsushika Hokusai
Lifespan:1760 – May 10, 1849

The greatest master of ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock prints), Hokusai is renowned internationally, probably more than any other Asian artist, and his masterpiece The Great Wave off Kanagawa is perhaps the face of Japanese art around the world. Known by more than thirty names through his career, Hokusai’s most important contributions came after he turned 60, including the famous series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which depicts the holy mountain in differing seasons and weather conditions from various angles and distances. Hokusai’s works have influenced Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters in the west from Renoir to Monet to Van Gogh.

Masterpiece: The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1833)
The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1833) – Katsushika Hokusai

Other famous works:-

  • Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
  • A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces
  • Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces

#1 Sesshu Toyo

Self-Portrait of Sesshu Toyo
Self-Portrait of Sesshu Toyo
Lifespan:1420 – August 26, 1506

Revered not only in Japan but also in China, Sesshu is known as the greatest exponent of sumi-e (ink wash painting), which was founded by his master Tensho Shubun. Like Tensho, Sesshu Toyo was also influenced by Chinese Song Dynasty painting but he transformed it and gave it Japanese character, like, he used greater contrast between light and shadow, thicker lines and a flatter effect of space. Even in his lifetime, Sesshu was hailed as the greatest painter of Japan and such has been his impact on Japanese art that for centuries Japanese artists have imitated his style and been influenced by his works. It is said that when Sesshu was a student he was punished for disobedience and tied to a pillar and when his teachers returned they were surprised to see a mouse very close to his foot. It was actually a picture Sesshu had drawn from his tears.

Masterpiece: Sansui Chokan (Long Scroll of Landscapes)

Autumn Landscape by Sesshu Toyo
Autumn Landscape

Other famous works:-

  • Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma
  • Landscapes of the Four Seasons
  • Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka
  • View of Ama-no-Hashidate

21 thoughts on “10 Famous Japanese Artists And Their Masterpieces”

  1. I was given two paintings by Miyouki Sheatani ( spelling ?) 20 years ago And was told that they were painted by her uncle. Is there anyway to check the value of these paintings ?
    I live in New Hampshire .

  2. What about the famous japanese female artist?
    Do you have an article about that or is there a website that you would recommand?


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