Snowscape depicting a man walking towards a hermitage

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  • Catalogue text

    An elderly crouching man with a cane makes his way along a bridge almost knee-deep in snow. A pair of thatched-roof houses under a canopy of leafless trees await him on the other side. Our eye travels upward from the figure to the white, snow-covered mountains that are stacked up in the distance. A grey sky completes the scene that effectively evokes a feeling of the burdens and the beauty of winter.

    The various ink tonalities and forceful brushstrokes are elements of Shōnen's signature style. The artist uses a wet brush to render the contour lines of the mountains and rooftops, and a dry brush for the tree trunks and the beams of the bridge. This is done not only to express various textures but various distances as well. The underside of the bridge and the trees in the foreground done with dark black ink and a dry brush come forward as more distant trees done in ink wash fade into the background [this device can also be seen in Shōnen’s Landscape with Two Travelers, of 1912, published in Michiyo Morioka and Paul Berry, Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Modern Painting Traditions, Nihonga from the Griffith and Patricia Way Collection (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum 1999), 109].

    Shōnen was an integral figure in the Kyoto Nihonga movement. Like many artists of the movement, his background was in the Shijō school of which his father Suzuki Hyakunen (1825-1891) had been a leader. He studied at the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School, founded by the Meiji government, that included four basic divisions of painting known as the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western school sections. Shōnen controversially became head of the Northern School division in 1881 after antagonism led the two former heads, his father and Kōno Bairei (1844-1895), to leave their positions. His apathy for his role at the school however did some damage. He was an independent personality and excelled in painting many subjects such as landscapes, birds, dragons [most famous are the dragons he painted on the ceiling of the main building of the Tenryūji in Kyoto] and figures. The Ashmolean’s painting is typical of his landscapes that capture a Japanese nostalgia for an earlier period, which explains his extreme popularity as an artist during his lifetime and beyond.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 57 on p. 196, pp. 14 & 188, illus. p. 197

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