Soga Shohaku’s paintings in 1760s

Copying the artworks of the masters was regarded as the orthodox way of passing down the lineage of artistic techniques and skills. It made sure of the consistency of the theme and quality of the artworks that would be appreciated by the elite class, but also limited the growth of the individual styles during the Edo period. With the support of the new wealthy merchants, individual artists, like Soga Shohaku, were able to obtain sponsorships from the merchant class. This fostered the artistic innovations and artists were able to pursue new styles, techniques, and modes of representation to express themselves. In the Edo period, Shohaku was recognized as the “eccentrics,” who not only painted differently from the other schools, but also behaved in odd ways that made him unique from the rest of the society. Modern art historians categorized Shohaku as the “individual” artist whose artistic intelligence was unique on its own and did not belong to any major schools. This paper analyzes three major folding screen artworks from Shohaku around 1760s: Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon (朝比奈首曳図, 1763-1764); The Four Sages of Mount Shang (商山四皓図屏風, 1768); and The Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine (虎渓三笑図屏風, 1768). These works represent Soga Shohaku’s major achievements in his artistic innovations and styles; and through analyzing these works, this paper attempts to identify the underlying characteristics of Soga Shohaku’s eccentric art and how the major art schools’ styles influenced his work. 

The major characteristics of Shohaku’s eccentric artworks are the use of large monochrome ink brushstrokes, the highly abstract figurations, and pictorial background, and the Chinese mythological scenes depicted in the paintings. These elements made Shohaku different from the orthodox schools because they were unique characteristics of Shohaku’s marks – if a viewer sees a work from 18th century Edo period with all those elements in the painting, s/he would attribute the work to Shohaku. However, they were not invented by Shohaku, but different characteristics of many schools combined.

Figures in Shohaku’s paintings were highly abstract. In his 6-panel painting pairs, The Four Sages of Mount Shang (figure 1), he depicted four Chinese sages with an attendant. The bodies of the sages on the right panel were contoured heavily using a thick brush. These sages were lying near a huge tree truck – two facing the viewer with sake bowls in their hands and near their bodies; and one sage facing his back towards the audience. However, by comparing his pose with the sage on his right, it is reasonable to assume that he is also holding a sake bowl, enjoying his time. On the left panel, one sage is depicted in his three-quarter view and highly abstract and simple lines were used to identify his body, his face, and his hat. This representation is extremely abstract as the body and face features were simplified in lines. The position of this sage is confusing if the viewer is watching him from far distance as there is unidentifiable land or rock that this sage is sitting on. As the viewer moves closer to the painting, it is more obvious that the sage is riding an animal, which might be a donkey, but it is too abstract to identify what exactly the animal is. The patterns on the sages’ clothes were also simplified by using a thick line to identify them.

Similarly, the clear facial features and expressions on the sages’ faces, facing towards the audience were also abstract and not naturalistic. Shohaku used simple lines and dots to represent features like eyes, eyebrows, noses, and lips. However, this simple depiction on figurations strongly contrasted with the detailed rendering of landscape where the sages are situated. The tree truck was harshly contoured using light brushes – by looking at the painting closely, his gestures were extremely visible, flowing from upper right down to the bottom. The hollowness on the tree is also depicted by the circle patterns that suggests the circular hand gesture motion when creating. The tree branch on the left panel framed the sage under itself. It was rendered in strong motions, as the air between the brush strokes were clear on the painting. Despite the harsh lines that Shohaku created for the tree trucks and branches, the leafs on the branch in the left panel were carefully rendered with patience and delicacy. This highly contrasts with the rest of the painting; however, it is a strong evidence to prove that Shohaku carefully planned out the compositions. 

Using only monochrome ink, Shohaku was able to demonstrate the deep receding landscape using different toner values to differentiate close objects from the background landscape. On the right panel, the mountain further back in the composition was depicted using light ink, creating an atmospheric effect. The tree truck in the foreground was presented in a darker toner to emphasize its existence. However, there is no set formulae of how Shohaku would use the different tone. The contour of the sages’ bodies on the right panel were depicted in the darkest ink color; however, the contour of the sage on the left panel was presented in lighter in ink. 

The use of only monochrome ink to depict abstract figures and the freeness in the choice of subjects and use of brushstrokes could only be found in Soga Shohaku’s paintings. Major orthodox schools that were influential during the same period had their own styles that had been passed down decades and the choice of subjects and styles were consistent through the decades of development. Those schools were the Tosa school, the Kano school, and the Rinpa artists. Artists in those schools were trained by copying the works of the masters to obtain the lineage of same artistic skills and techniques. However, what’s eccentric about Shohaku’s paintings is that the viewer can observe many characteristics of the major schools. 

The Kano school was the most prestigious school among those three. Its style was first established by Kano Massanobu and was further developed by Kano Tan’yu. Its works are mainly recognized as the court paintings that served for the shogunal court. The Kano school imagery combined the strength of dynamic ink lines and the beauty of attractive colors on folding screens, door panels, and hanging scrolls. An example of the Kano School images is The Old Plum (figure 2) by Kano Sansetsu in 1646, now collected at the MET Museum. In this painting, the viewer can see the dramatic turn of the tree to depict its majesty, as well as the rough and harsh brushstrokes that Sansetsu used in rendering the body of the tree. These are the similar elements that Shohaku also used in his paintings (figure 1). This can be due to the early training that Shohaku took under Kano Keiho, a pupil of Kano Sansetsu’s son, Eino. 

It is obvious that Kano style had some influences on Shohaku’s paintings. However, Sansetsu’s tree was rendered in more constraints and power, while Shohaku’s tress was more loosely depicted. This is largely due to the influence of Soga School. According to Nobuo Tsuji, a well-known modern Japanese art historian, it was the Soga School that had the most direct effect on the formation of Shohaku’s style. The founder of the Soga School was Yi Sumun, who was believed to be a Chinese and was famous for producing Chinese-style painting during the Muromachi period. His style got carried down by Chokuan, whose style is characterized by the use of dark ink and rough brushwork, distorted rocks, and trees, and bizarre and heavy accents. Based on these knowledge, it is clear that Shohaku align himself with the Soga School. In an ink landscape painting by another Soga artist, Soga Nichokuan (figure 3), the tree branches and leafs were depicted and differentiated using a variety of dark and light toner values – the tree truck was presented with the darkest black, and the leafs were presented in the lightest ink. This technique can also be found in Shohaku’s Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon (figure 4), in which the artist used light and dark ink, thick and thin brushwork to depict the tree leafs. Shohaku also invented his own use of ink to demonstrate atmospheric effect, which can be found on the mountain of the Four Sages of Mount Shang (figure 1) and the leafs of Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon (figure 4). 

Apart from the influence from the Soga School and the Kano School, artworks like Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon (figure 4) also demonstrated the Rimpa characteristics that Shohaku picked up from his contemporary artists. The center figural group is organized by a wood stick that separated the left and right panel. On the right are the two Chinese mythological figures and a Japanese warrior on the left is the demon. In the foreground, the demon is using a rope to lock the warrior’s head, making the warrior left his sword on the ground. The exposure of the stomach of the warrior also represented the motion that he is fighting with the demon. It is worth pointing that the bodies of the demon and the warrior was rendered in break brushstrokes that shows the odd bodies of those figures. Those brushstrokes represented the unnaturalistic rendering of the muscle groups of the bodies. The similar techniques of depicting the figural bodies can be found in a Rimpa artist’s work - Wind God and Thunder God (figure 5) by Tawaraya Sotatsu. The body of the Thunder God on the left panel is also depicted with unrealistic muscle groups that shows the power and the motion of the god’s body. What’s different, however, is that the figuration in Shohaku’s paintings were depicted more in abstract than Sotatsu’s – the brushstrokes were more broken and shorter and the turn of the brush was more abrupt and awkward in Shohaku’s work. Despite that, another similarity between the Rimpa artist’s figuration and Shohaku’s subjects is that the figures all have big eyes without eyelids – this can be influenced by the Chinese Zen Buddhist figurations. Chinese influences can be found both on the Soga School’s works and the Rimpa artists’ works. Even though the techniques and skills of depictions are different, they share the similar characteristics in rendering figurations. 

Without the big, famous art school to promote Shohaku’s artworks, the artist formed his own unique style by mixing the artistic techniques from other schools. In his Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine (figure 6), Shohaku depicted three Chinese mythological figures walking closely down a rocky road. Their facial expression is unanimous, as they are very happy and laughing with each other. Based on the image, it is hard to determine what they are laughing for, but it is very likely that the figures are drunk, as the front figure seems to carry the middle figure; and the middle figure carries the last figure. Drinking is also a recurring theme in Shohaku’s images, such as The Four Sages of Mount Shang (figure 1) also depicts drinking scene. In The Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine painting (figure 6), the artist also used a tree to frame the narrative. The use of tree as a framing device is a common feature that can be found in Shohaku’s paintings. In the background, there is a water fall running down the mountain. The use of landscape as a background, also as the space where the narratives occurs is another common element that can be found in all three off the artists’ paintings discussed in this paper. What’s different in this painting from the other two artworks is the less abstract pictorial space. The rocky round is more defined and presented with more details than the paintings discussed previously. This shows Shohaku’s flexibility in mixing and matching different styles as he wishes; and this freeness in constant switching and changing styles is a unique characteristic of Shohaku’s artworks. 

Apart from mixing variety of styles, Shohaku also freely changes his artistic techniques to demonstrate his flexibility in depiction. The use of light and dark contours on the figures can be observed in most of his paintings. However, not strictly following in certain format, the artist sometimes uses the dark line to draw the contour of a figure (figure 1), and sometimes uses light ink to frame the figural contour (figure 4). The brushstrokes are usually very distinctive and harsh, like the tree branches (figure 1), but sometimes, it can also be smooths and balanced, like the water fall (figure 6). The scene depicted is known to be abstract with few details, but there are times where the details of the bridge (figure 6) were drawn in so much delicacy that it does not appear the consistency in rendering the details. 

Despite the artistic uniqueness, these Shohaku’s paintings still follow the traditional Byobu (folding screen) formats. The Four Sages of Mount Shang (figure 1) is a pair of six-panel folding screens. The Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon (figure 4) and the Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine (figure 6) are both two-panel folding screens. The use of gold on the screens is consistent with the Edo period practices to demonstrate the wealth of the patrons. This can be due to the influence of the major schools where their objects were traditional and defined, proving that Shohaku’s most significant artistic innovation is not on the form but the styles and techniques of composition. 

Shohaku’s eccentricity in art was mostly represented in his choice of medium, choice of subject, and the techniques and styles of images. However, his artistic rendering was not completed innovated by himself as the influence of the Kano school, the Rimpa artists, and the Soga school can be easily observed in his paintings. This composite style is an important feature to express his eccentricity because during the Edo period, major art schools had the clear lineage of styles, while Shohaku is a style of his own. He is an artist who was very connected to the contemporary aesthetic trends, but also deliberately invented his own styles to differentiate himself with other artists. He was able to express his individual styles with the help of the new merchant class and many anecdotes can be found to understand Shohaku’s eccentricity in his encounters with his patrons. Thus, a further analysis can be done to demonstrate the connection between Shohaku’s styles with his odd behaviors to identify how did his eccentric behaviors formed his artistic styles.



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Tsuji, Nobuo. Lineage of Eccentrics: Matabei to Kuniyoshi. Tokyo: Kaikai Kiki, 2012. Required reading pp. 104-143



Figure 1: The Four Sages of Mount Shang 商山四皓図屏風, Soga Shôhaku, around 1768. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Figure 2: Old Plum, Kano Sansetsu, 1646. MET Museum, New York

Figure 3: Ink landscape, Soga Nichokuan, ink on paper, early 17th century. Honolulu Academy of Arts

Figure 4: Asahina in a Tug-of-war with a Demon, Soga Shôhaku, around 1763–64. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Figure 5: Wind God and Thunder God 紙本金地著色風神雷神図, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, 1640. Kyoto National Museum

Figure 6: The Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine 虎渓三笑図屏風, Soga Shôhaku, about 1768. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


artJenny Maart, painting, Japanese, history