Maruyama Okyo

One of the master painters of Japan's Edo period, Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795) was the most influential painter and teacher of the 18th century in Kyoto. Although trained in the conservative Kano School of painting, Okyo combined styles from Japanese, Chinese, and 18th century Western influences. With an eye toward realistic perspective and scientific observation, Okyo created naturalistic bird-and-flower studies and illustrated anatomy books. Broadening his range to producing large-scale screen compositions, Okyo accepted commissions from temples and the royal palace in Kyoto. Famous in his own time, he founded the Maruyama School and influenced such noted painters as Matsumura Goshun and Nagasawa Rosetsu.


Encouraged to Pursue Painting

Maruyama Okyo was born to farmers in 1733 in the Kameoka region of Tamba Province, now part of Kyoto Prefecture. Although his parents wanted him to become a monk, he showed artistic talent early in life. As a youngster he apprenticed at a clothing shop, then painted dolls for a toymaker, and then designed accessories for cosmetics shops. Although he had little formal education and was barely competent at the popular art of calligraphy, he excelled at painting.

Encouraged to pursue his talent for painting, at age 16 Okyo entered the three-century old Kano School, the official school of painters for the upper-class during the Edo period. Under master painter Ishida Yutei, Okyo copied the works of Japanese painters, learned to paint large byobu, or screens, practiced Chinese brush work, painted scrolls from preliminary sketches, and studied diverse painting styles favored by Yutei. For his own paintings, Okyo drew on his early life in Kyoto living among the townspeople and farmers and observing the beautiful landscapes and gorges.

Okyo eventually demonstrated more talent than his orthodox contemporaries. Although he continued to employ the monochrome brushwork he learned at Kano, the conservative school was resistant to innovation, prompting Okyo to seek new challenges. Through artist Watanabe Shiko and Okyo's own independent study, he became exposed to Western artistic influences. From Dutch prints, he learned linear perspective, modeling the human form, and a realistic approach to representation.


Blended Styles to Create His Own

In his early career up through his thirties, Okyo blended his studies of Chinese masters and the concept of perspective from Western painting to create his own style. He studied Chinese prints from Suzhou province and the works of painters in the Nagasaki School, which examined imported Chinese paintings, Western books, and copperplate etchings. Learning to present various perspectives, Okyo created ukie pictures which depicted a scene observed from a single viewpoint. This method was also employed for his megane-e (eyeglass pictures), which were painted stereographs used in an optical device that presented three-dimensional views of Chinese and Japanese landscapes.

The Western artistic styles introduced to Japan in the early 18th century included vanishing-point perspective and chiaroscuro. Through his exposure to Western style prints, copperplate engravings, and illustrated books, he designed copperplate prints for the new concept of camera oscura. Okyo produced many sketches in various forms, developing a realistic approach from sketches that used outlining brush strokes and wash. Okyo mastered both brush and ink and created a signature style that combined native techniques with Chinese and Western forms that would influence the modern Japanese style.

Despite being influenced by Western art, Okyo retained and explored his traditional Japanese roots. He adapted the decorative compositions created by fellow students of the Kano School, as well as the techniques of the native Rimpa and Tosa Schools. Okyo produced hanging scrolls that exhibited his experimentation with the naturalistic treatment of detail.

Okyo's work was at first criticized by Nanga School artists who favored literary significance in art and by the traditional Kano painters who incorporated Confucian ideas. But Okyo's simple combination of birds and flowers popularized in Chinese paintings and of European techniques created plain, easy to understand natural paintings that were appreciated by the merchant class.

After his thirties, Okyo continued to experiment with different techniques, encouraged by his friend Yujo, the abbot of the Emman'in temple in Otsu. Okyo studied and copied foreign books on surgery, used mirrors to help him visualize three-dimensional forms, studied ink paintings of the Muromachi period (1333-1568), and sketched classic Chinese-style bird-and-flower paintings. He experimented with inks, pigments, and the application of shading with a slanted brush to produce various planes. Okyo's propensity to hold a brush in whatever manner suited the creative nature of his piece, rather than holding it in the upright manner used to create calligraphy, caused controversy at the time. Nevertheless, his drive to develop his own voice propelled Okyo to become one of the most influential artists of the 18th century.


Painted from Nature

In 1774, Okyo returned to Kyoto from his studies with other masters. During the decade, he became an even more prolific painter and created works in larger formats. Okyo revived the practice of producing large-scale screen compositions. He received numerous commissions and painted some of his most important large-scale works for temples, such as Daijoji temple near the Sea of Japan, Kongoji temple in Kameoka, and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.

Influenced by the era's boom in scientific discovery, Okyo infused his work with a combination of naturalism and stylization, as evidenced by his hanging scroll "Peacock, Hen and Peonies." His scientific interests, especially botany, spurred him to sketch directly from nature and models rather than drawing from the imagination. He advocated painting that gave a close account of nature and adopted a first-hand observation style of sketching animals and people. His earliest known sketchbooks, filled with people and places from around Kyoto, date from the 1770s. The detailed and realistic style he used was sometimes referred to as shaseiga (life drawing paintings).

As explained in Okyo's entry in the Dictionary of Art, "Okyo's observations about painting … show his concern with definition of space in the picture as a whole and in the description of individual forms. His view that an artist must determine the 'bone structure' of a figure before attaching the clothing, reflected his familiarity with the Western basis of figure drawing."

During the Edo period, painters typically lacked the need to paint the natural world. Okyo, however, reveled in the flora and fauna around him and dedicated his works to capturing nature. He presented realism in his animal studies of birds and dogs that he incorporated into landscapes and featured in seasonal portrayals. He painted screens featuring blooming wisteria and misty bamboo groves in the rain on gold-foil paper and used simple brush strokes for the tree trunks. Okyo also made detailed sketchbooks of insects that are featured in the Tokyo National Museum and was known to produce medical and anatomy books.

Soon after being hired in 1790 to help restore the imperial palace in Kyoto, he contracted an eye disease. Continuing to work, he completed the 1794 piece "Waterfall and Pine Trees" for the Omote Shoin at Kotohira Shrine in Kagawa Prefecture. This piece is considered one of his best compositions.


Co-founded Maruyama-Shijo School

Okyo founded his own school for the arts in Kyoto called the Maruyama School or naturalist school. Rejecting the Kano and Tosa Schools' emphasis on tradition subjects, Maruyama School focused on a study of nature. Due to Okyo's fame during his lifetime, his school thrived and never wanted for students. His son Maruyama Ozui later succeeded him as head of the school.

Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811), who had trained in the Nanga School under Yosa no Buson (1716-1783), introduced the atmospheric landscape and bird-and-flower style of sketching called Shijo. Goshun joined Okyo and adopted Okyo's realistic style, although Goshun's work invoked a more lyrical and subtle feeling, reflecting the Nanga love of poetry.

Goshun created the Shijo division of the Maruyama School that fused Maruyama's naturalistic style with the Nanga's idealistic fashion. With its atmospheric washes, free brushwork, and sensuousness, the Shijo style was appropriate for 19th century artists. Other schools, such as Ukiyoe, adopted the style. In the late Edo period, Shiokawa Bunrin (1807-1877) combined the two schools to form the Maruyama-Shijo School, whose style remained prevalent into the 20th century. Maruyama-Shijo School technique incorporated realistic aspects based on perspective derived from Western influence and based paintings on detailed sketching from life, yet retained traditional Japanese themes.

As explained in the Encyclopedia of Visual Arts, Okyo pioneered or revived six painting styles that influenced his followers: dramatic decorative screens influenced by Western perspective ("Hozu Rapids"), studies of nature in relaxed brushwork ("Wisteria Screens"), unidealized genre paintings ("Seven Happinesses and Seven Misfortunes"), Chinese style portraits and bird-and-flower paintings ("Peacocks and Peonies"), displays of ink monochrome ("Dragon Screens"), and soft and misty landscapes ("Spring, Summer").

Okyo's legacy of the effects of light and shadow and his experiments with perspective influenced his followers. Many of Okyo's students became famous: Matsumura Goshun, Nagasawa Rosetsu, Komai Genki, Watanabe Nangaku, Yamaguchi Soken, Mori Tessan, and Hara Zaichu. Rosetsu excelled at a brushwork style influenced by Okyo. Tessan was inspired by Okyo's sketching from life. Zaichu adopted Okyo's spatial construction technique.


Created Master Works Featuring Nature

Okyo was a master of depicting seasonal activities, his favorite being winter and summer, the seasons least celebrated in Japanese art. The technical aspects of painting wintery snow scenes particularly challenged Okyo. To create the image of snow and snow drifts in his "Puppies among Bamboo in the Snow, Landscape in Snow" (1784), he used the sotoguma (outside shading) technique of applying ink and washes around areas of blank paper.

One of his finest large screen pieces is "Pine, Bamboo and Plum (Three Friends in Winter)," a pair of six-fold screens composed of ink and gold on paper. Characteristic of his bird-and-flower pieces, "Heron on a Willow Branch" was painted in the classical Japanese yamato-e style, using flat areas of colorful pigments set against an expansive background.


Encyclopedia of Visual Arts, Grolier Education Corp., 1983.

Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Kodansha, 1983.

Osborn, Harold, ed., The Oxford Companion to Art, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Turner, Jane, ed., Dictionary of Art, Macmillan Publishers, 1996.


"The Manyo'an Collection of Japanese Art," Gitter-Yelen Art Study Center website, (March 5, 2003).

"Maruyama Okyo," The Cleveland Museum of Art website,−O&8 (March 5, 2003).

"Maruyama Okyo," The Los Angeles County Museum of Art website, (March 5, 2003).