Museum Dictionary

Differences in Painting Styles

Look carefully at the two sets of sliding door panels below. What makes them different?

  • Attributed to Oguri Sokei, Landscape (detail)
    Important Cultural Property Landscape (detail)
    Attributed to Oguri Sokei,
    Muromachi Period, 15th Century
    Four sliding-door panals,
    ink and light color on paper,
    169.3 x 115.7 cm each
    (Kyoto National Museum)
  • Attributed to Oguri Sokei, Reeds and Geese (detail)
    Important Cultural Property Reeds and Geese (detail)
    Attributed to Oguri Sokei,
    Muromachi Period, dated 1490
    Six sliding-door panals,
    ink on paper,
    169.5 x 116.0 cm each
    (Kyoto National Museum)

The first thing you probably noticed is the difference in subject. Landscape shows steep mountains, a rushing waterfall, and a country villa. Reeds and Geese depicts a flock of wild geese playing in the water among the rush. Actually, these panels are examples of two different traditional painting subjects, "Landscapes" and "Birds and Flowers." You should be able to tell the difference between the two subjects at a glance.

What other things can you look for in these paintings? First you have to look at each set of paintings up close. Can you see a difference between the two now? If you noticed that the painting styles are completely different, you are right! Landscape is painted with dark, harsh lines to show the ruggedness of the cliffs and trees, but Reeds and Geese is painted with soft, curved lines. The brushwork in Landscape is extremely detailed and precise, while Reeds and Geese gives the impression of having been painted very quickly and roughly.

You might ordinarily expect that two such different works would have been painted by different artists. But these two works were painted by the same person, during the same time period, to be put in the same building!

How could one person paint panels in two such different styles? And why? Let's step back in time to answer these questions. "Is it possible to step back in time?," you may be wondering. Well, it just so happens that the answer to these questions are explained in the diary (called Inryouken Nikiroku) of a Zen priest named Kisen Shosho of Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto. Try to "step back in history" as we talk about what this diary says.

According to the diary, both Landscape and Reeds and Geese were painted in the month of July in the year 1490. That was over 500 years ago! At the time, Japan was in an age called the Muromachi Period. The artist of these paintings was a man named Oguri Sokei, but we don't know when he was born or when he died. The diary does tell us in that Sokei had trained as a Zen monk, and that the author of the diary was his Zen teacher, but Sokei gave up the his religious training to become a painter! Sokei painted these two paintings for a temple that still exists today! The temple, called Yotoku-in, is a sub-temple of the great Zen temple Daitokuji in the city of Kyoto. The abbot (head priest) of Yotoku-in at the time was a man called Shunpo Soki. He is the one who ordered the paintings from Sokei. It is after this that the diary gets interesting!

It says in the diary that Sokei painted a "landscape painting in the style of Xia Gui" and "a reeds and geese painting in the style of the Priest." Xia Gui was a Chinese painter of the Southern Song Dynasty (active ca. 1200-1240). "The Priest" refers to Mu Xi (active 13th Century), a painter of the same time period who was also a Zen priest. This means that Sokei did not just randomly paint in any way that he liked. This diary proves that he was modeling his paintings after the very different styles of two great Chinese masters, Xia Gui and Mu Xi!

The Japan in which Sokei lived was one that loved Chinese culture almost to the point of worship. At that time, China had an extremely sophisticated and advanced culture. Powerful Japanese samurai and Zen priests of the day were very interested in the daily lives of cultured Chinese. They bought karamono, imported Chinese works of art such as ceramics and writing utensils, at almost unbelievably high prices and used them to decorate their houses. When they ordered paintings by Japanese painters, they would ask for them in the style of famous Chinese painters who were popular in Japan. Besides Xia Gui and Mu Xi, such Chinese painters included Ma Yuan, Sun Junze, Yu Jian and others. Thus in order to fill all their orders, Japanese painters of the Muromachi Period had to master the styles of as many major Chinese painters as possible! Or to put it another way, unless one did not learn many different painting styles, one could never be recognized by Japanese society as a great master painter! It must have been hard to be a painter then, don't you think?

Now, I have a quiz for you. Look at the following painting. It is called Landscapes of the Four Seasons and is by the great Japanese painter Sesshu, who lived during the same period as Sokei. This painting, too, was painted in the style of a great Chinese master. Can you tell in which style this painting was made, the style of Xia Gui or the style of Mu Xi? (The answer is at the bottom of the page.)

  • Important Cultural Property Landscapes of the Four Seasons (detail)
    Attributed to Sesshu,
    Muromachi Period, late 15th Century
    Handscroll, ink and light color on paper
    21.5 x 1151.5 cm
    (Kyoto National Museum)

Text by Hideo Yamamoto, Department of Museum Research
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

*If you want to see a painting by the great Chinese painter Mu Xi, click here!
*If you want to see the whole painting Landscapes of the Four Seasons, by Sesshu, click here!

(Answer: The style is that of Xia Gui)

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