History Painting in the Meiji Era by Takashina Shūji: A Response

History Painting in the Meiji Era: A Consideration of the Issues discusses the introduction of the concept of ‘history painting’ into Japan as well as the definition of history painting both in Meiji Japan and the contemporaneous West.

The concept of history painting entered Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) but dates back to the 17th century. Western history paintings depicted historical, mythological and biblical subjects. The standard Western history painting was a large, imposing painting of multiple figures and scenes that formed a narrative, often identified by signifying devices. Shūji argues that it was this style of painting that was being introduced to Japan, despite the status of the history painting having already been challenged in the West e.g. Gustave Courbet’s Tableau de figures humaines, historique d’un enterrement a’ Ornans (1849-1850), that applied the dimensions, techniques and naming conventions of a history painting to the depiction of a peasant’s funeral, a subject matter which would never had been depicted in a traditional history painting.

Shūji discusses the sharp rise in number of history paintings in Meiji Japan and the subsequent debate around what should qualify as a history painting. One of the earliest promoters of history paintings in Japan, Toyama Shōichi controversially said that in order to classify as a history painting the content must be real and not imagined, whilst simultaneously stating that the subject must not be mundane and chosen subjects must be interpreted nobly by the painter. Though this opinion was highly contested at the time, most notably by Mori Ōgai. 

Near the end of the essay, Shūji observes that even the Imperial Household Agency commissioned history paintings. This eludes to one of the most compelling aspects of history painting – how they can be utilised politically. Thus when studying a history painting it is vital to consider the intended message of the painting – who commissioned these paintings and why? It would be interesting to investigate how motivations behind history paintings differed between Japan and the West.

Overall, History Painting in the Meiji Era: A Consideration of the Issues provides a fascinating insight into the debates around the introduction of history painting into Japan.

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