The patronage of decorative arts in the Momoyama and Tokugawa period 1976.

The patronage of decorative arts in the Momoyama and Tokugawa period

The patronage of decorative arts was a preserving force for many branches of Japanese art. Its various forms, development and impact on art schools and individual artists have not much been studied. It is easy to document the unifying effect of this patronage on the style of various schools but it is not quite so easy to explain how the artistic personality and individual character of outstanding masters escaped this tendency and the traditional style. And I feel that in the last analysis individual artistic creation – be it in new ideas, in new technical solutions or in a thoroughly new, exciting combination of earlier decorative motifs – is one of the most characteristic traits and strongholds of Japanese art in its entirety.

A brief survey of art patronage therefore might be useful from this aspect. In this short paper I should like to illustrate some forms of art patronage and to trace their influences in various branches of decorative arts.

Patronage of the arts can be divided into two main categories: direct feudal patronage, in which a lord furnished the livelihood of the artist and later the indirect patronage, whereby someone commissioned or simply bought the object of art, thus contributing to the livelihood of the artist. In essence these two forms are not too far from each other but the second type offered more artistic freedom, as illustrated by the works of outstanding individual artists or by netsuke carving in general.

The patronage of art in Japan dates back to early history and was a well-established system from the Nara period on. This system had some similar traits to feudal art patronage in Europe but it had quite different characteristics as well.

Palace buildings, gardens and the tea-ceremony came under the patronage of the Ashikaga shoguns. In the Momoyama and Tokugawa periods however, parallel to historical changes, the patronage of decorative arts reached new heights and adopted wider forms. Among these new developments we may mention the general tendency in both periods of building, the rise of the wealthy towns and merchants, and the appearance of townspeople as buyers.

For convenience sake we may try to classify art patrons into several groups.

Great impetus was due in all arts generally to the patronage of those political rulers who unified Japan in the 16th and 17th century, that is to Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, as well as to their followers, the Tokugawa shöguns. These three leaders rose to power and wealth by strong will, and by military and organizing ability. Although the first two enjoyed but a short rule, they all left their marks on Japanese art.

Nobunaga, by building the splendid castle at Azuchi on Lake Biwa, set an example to the great lords of his era. In other fields of art Nobunaga employed the sixth master of the Koami school of lacquerers, and his family had strong ties with the tea-ceremony. One of his brothers was a chajin who studied with Sen no Rikyū. Nobunaga ordered tea ceramics at Chojirō and personally conducted several memorable teaceremonies.1

Hideyoshi patronized many branches of art. In fact, he was one of the greatest art patrons in the history of Japan. On the building of his palace at Fushimi he employed many craftsmen, including the best wood-carvers of Nara, and such a well-known lacquerer as Kõami Kyū.2 In this castle he arranged a famous flower show in 1594. The other, also ruined, castle of his, the Jūrakudai in Kyoto, served for the reception of the highest guests.

As a devotee of cha-no-yu, he gave a memorable tea party at Kitano to which he invited five hundred tea masters and practically all the people, including farmers and commoners. He himself also conducted tea-ceremony. The recurrent patronage of pottery was probably due to his liking of cha-no-yu. He presented the raku seal to Chojiro. When visiting Bizen he personally tried the potter’s wheel and rewarded some potters there. He also commissioned Furuta Oribe. Guided by commercial interest, he imported cheap pottery jars from the Philippines.

In other fields of art he was the chief patron of the Nishijin, and the Kodaiji-lacquers also preserve his memory. With regard to metalwork, he gave a small estate to the fifth Goto master.

The art patronage of Ieyasu and the following shoguns is well-known. I shall stress here but a few points. With the transfer of the capital to Edo, a new art centre was formed which gave homes and work to many generations of distinguished art schools, like the Kano painters and the Goto family.

The erection of the Tokugawa mausolea at Nikkō was a great venture which afforded work to craftsmen in many branches of the decorative arts. The Töshögü and the Daiyūin are outstanding achievements in terms of patronage, irrespective of their artistic values.

The building of the Nijō and Edo castles, the promotion of tea-growing at Uji, the personal interest in the cha-no-yu, as well as the patronage of the Kōami, Kajikawa and Koma schools of lacquerers are other aspects of the attitude displayed towards art by the Tokugawa clan.

The parallel centre to the shogunal court was the Imperial court of Kyoto. As this court lacked actual power or means, and many of the old aristocrats of Kyoto were impoverished, their impact on art was far less than that of the shögunal court. Besides, as a result of feudal struggles and wars, Kyoto was nearly in ruins and had lost its former dominance in art. In the early Tokugawa period many artists of the Kyoto area were invited to and resettled in Edo and other centres by various lords. Unfortunately, little is known about the life of the aristocracy at Kyoto in this period. The Tosa painters worked traditionally for them but this school was already in decline.

It is known that Köetsu had strong friendly ties with prince Sanmyakuin Konoe and others in Kyoto. Sötatsu painted three pairs of screens for the Imperial library. Kenzan and Korin also had friends from the old artistocracy. The next and largest group of patrons consisted of the provincial daimyo. Patronage of the arts was traditional in this circle. It is important to stress some points here. With the rule of Hideyoshi the composition of the daimyo underwent significant changes, Small, relatively unknown families emerged, and even the leaders did not belong to the old aristocracy. In connection with this the aesthetic taste of the daimyo also changed a lot. It became less traditional and tended to prefer colourful and large decorative forms.

The fiefs and wealth of the daimyo were not constant. By 1650 only a few of them remained in their original territories, because they were transferred to other provinces by the Tokugawa shoguns in order to prevent conspiracy. This applies mostly to jūdai daimyo.3

In connection with the daimyo the development of decorative arts was largely promoted as a consequence of two facts. First the spread of castle building around the turn of the 16th-17th centuries, and second the compulsory system of spending every second year at Edo, which resulted in a large-scale palace building campaign. These meant much work and great opportunities for many craftsmen, and whole schools, mostly in decorating the castles and palaces,

With regard to the slow general economic decline in the Tokugawa period, further to the rising role of commerce, the daimyo were compelled to care more for economy and industry. This tendency increased the personal interest of the daimyo for art and provided a new basis for various crafts in the provincial capitals. The patronage of pottery, and the building of kilns in Kyūshū and Kaga may be mentioned here as good examples.

It is interesting to survey the range of patronage of some great daimyo, although in many cases artists received help not only from them, but also from less well-known lords. Attention must be called, however, to the fact that there was much difference in this regard between the fudai and the tozama daimyo.

The fiefs and capitals of the tozama daimyo were mostly constant and lay far from the shögunal centre. In consequence their patronage went on for generations and became traditional in the given district. On the other hand, the tozama daimyo, compelled to care more for the economic welfare of their constant fiefs, were most interested in the promotion of local crafts and industries. The Maeda family of Kaga, for instance, one of the wealthiest daimyo families, actively promoted the development of arts and crafts.

Toshihara Maeda opened the ceramic manufacture at Kutani which produced fine tea vessels and later porcelain as well. For this purpose the daimyo employed Chinese masters and a Kano style painter of Kyoto. To improve the artistic quality of the production, the leading potter was sent on a long fact-finding tour to other ceramic centres in Japan.

The emergence and fame of Kanazawa lacquerware was also due to daimyo patronage. The daimyo ensured the services of the Igarashi family, which laid down the foundations of artistic lacquerware there.4

The sword specialists of the Honami family were traditionally employed by the Maedas and the versatile Kõetsu received the unusually high stipend of two hundred koku of rice from them.

The members of the Hosokawa family of Higo and Buzen were also influential art patrons. They invited the excellent Korean potter Sonkai at the end of the 16th century and allotted him fifteen koku of rice, a new name plus a number of helpers. He became the originator of artistic pottery at Agano.

In the early 17th century Tadaoki Hosokawa had a memorable collection of precious tea vessels, which he offered for auction later to insure food for his impoverished servants.

It was on the advice of Hideyoshi that Yoshihiro Shimazu settled twenty-two Korean potters, together with their families in Satsuma and Osumi. The daimyo of Satsuma traditionally patronized ceramic centres. The multicoloured overglaze painting, the nishiki-de, was introduced at Satsuma by the order of Narinobu Shimazu in the seventeen-nineties. Hermann Bohner has recently attributed the great interest shown by the daimyo of Satsuma in ceramic production under the rule of leyoshi to the fact that this daimyo came under strong Tokugawa control and was compelled to give up his earlier political plans.5

The effects of the daimyo patronage in the development of the porcelain manufacture and export of such centres on Kyūshū as Mikawachi and Okawachi by the Matsuura and Nabeshima families are well known.6

In the early and mid-Tokugawa period these centres worked exclusively for the personal need of their daimyo and they produced the finest Japanese porcelain.

As examples of some ceramic centres of Kyūshū, like that of Chösa show, the fate of these manufactures depended largely on daimyo patronage. When the daimyo transferred his seat, their development and existence became endangered.

From a broader aspect it is interesting to note that export art production developed rapidly in the Meiji era in the centres promoted earlier by the great daimyo.

From other daimyo families we may mention the Matsudaira. Morimasa, who was a famous tea-master, wrote a book on tea utensils in the early 18th century and Fumai published a catalogue of chadögu. The family of Ogata Kõrin and Kenzan owed their prosperous silk and kimono trading shop to the recommendation of the daimyo of Asai.7

When we turn to the other branches of the decorative arts, the unusual appreciation of sword-makers, the promotion of the silk industry and weaving and the patronage of the Nō theatre was almost universal among the daimyo.

The importance of weapons and armour in Japan is well stressed by the case of Munesada Myochin. Around the turn of the 16th-17th centuries this master made a new kind of armour for the daimyo Masumune Date, from whom he received an estate and an allotment of five hundred koku of rice.8 This allotment was unusually high and was, by the way, more than double that received by Kõetsu from the Maedas.

A less known aspect of art patronage was that presented by shrines and Buddhist temples; however, religious life was on the decline in these periods. Moreover, we may suppose I think that religious art was mainly traditional.

The circle of art patrons widened enormously in Japan from the 16th century onward. Among the causes of this was the growing importance of commerce, of cities, merchants and townsmen. The arrival of the Europeans had opened up great possibilities for the export of decorative art products. As a result of these events production rose to an unwitnessed volume, which, of course brought along a dilution in the matter of quality. Writing of the cultural life in the Genroku era, Sansom remarked that practically all but the poorest citizens became patrons of art.9

We can divide this new circle of art patrons into two categories. The first and smaller one consisted of the leading rich merchants, the machishū, who emerged in the 16th century. At first, they tried to absorb the traditional arts and culture of the aristocracy. They had connections also with the court but later they became the followers of the new art. As patrons they offered new opportunities to town painters, who became the decorators of their houses. It was mainly Sötatsu, Kõetsu and Kõrin who got commissions from the members of this group, and they shaped its aesthetic taste.

As a result of central government policy the power of the merchants was greatly restricted and they were replaced by a new class of merchants later. Kõrin and Kõetsu, however, despised the newly rich and it is worth mentioning here the opinion of Langdon Warner. He wrote that the much admired new style of Korin and his followers was the revolt of the decorators against the affectation of the newly rich.10

The second and larger group of patrons consisted of ordinary townsmen. In a new trend they became patrons of art, not by commissioning artists as it usually was earlier in aristocratic circles, but mostly by buying the ready made art products. They became the customers of netsuke carvers, kimono dyers, individual potters, bronze casters and so on including most of ukiyo-e art, mainly the cheap woodblockprints.

The volume of production rose quickly and the ordinary citizens became the buyers of new works of art – a process which ended in the Meiji era. Although artistic quality suffered much, the artist had more freedom to experiment with new forms and ideas, and he became a producer plus a seller of works of art.

Like aristocratic patronage in Europe, the shogunal and daimyo patronage in Japan limited the expressional freedom of the artist and in the main employed him anonymously. On the other hand, this kind of patronage contributed much to the development of all arts. Only by getting the livelihood for himself and for his family from a lord was the artist capable of creating works of art demanding such a long, painstaking work as lacquerware or a sword blade.

A Japanese friend, a historian, told me that in old Japan a craftsman could not work except under the patronage of a lord. He received no money for his work, only allotments of land and privilege. Only the most famous masters were offered cash directly as acknowledgement of their great skill, as all arts were considered very much like crafts. But the great change came for the creative artists just in these centuries when they actually became artists, instead of craftsmen.

The daimyo patronage of art contributed also to the spread of techniques and new styles all over Japan. It was usual among the daimyo to lend their craftsmen to another daimyo for a fixed period. Many daimyo sent their craftsmen to famous masters in other provinces to study. Many blacksmiths were sent for instance to Munesuke Myöchin in Edo.

The final, interesting side of patronage to be discussed would be that of the effects of the patronage system on art forms and styles. This is a complex question and I can give here only some thoughts about it, Most works of decorative art served practical purposes in old Japan. The subject matter of a work of art was given mostly by the patron himself, although he chose it frequently from the pattern book of a painter or decorator. In some cases the daimyo commissioned the planning of a whole set by a famous painter. Iemitsu for instance commissioned Iwasa Matabei with the planning of a lacquerware set for his daughter’s marriage. And the lord of Gifu had one hundred inro by Koma Yasutada, the decoration of which consisted of different birds. But from the masters of Edo the patrons wished splendour before all and not individual ideas.

With regard to style and technique, I think that the school and tradition of the master was the determining force. Even when settled in Edo, they carried on mostly their designs and techniques. The styles of Kyoto were thus transplanted to Edo. It is interesting to note, however, that pottery and silk weaving represented exceptions and spread to a smaller degree in Edo. Probably because of the dependance on the materials, pottery was connected mainly with the old centres.

Only the greatest artists were exceptions to the general trend in style and subject matter. Even Kenzan complained that he had found no suitable clay to work with at Sano, whether his Sano diary is entirely false or only a copy.11

Speaking of expression and style, we must stress the well-known duality in Japanese art, namely that the simplest, expressive style combined with a deep love for natural materials sometimes existed together with a strong quest of splendour and decorative trends.

As to the effects of patronage, there was one sure cardinal fact in it, namely that the commissioner could rely on quality. Be it a traditional inro, a sword blade or tsuba, a silk cover for a Buddhist shrine, a high degree of quality is sensed in old Japanese art. I feel this goes beyond the question of patronage and is related to the general character of the Japanese.

To us Westerners, the works created by the individual, scholar-type artists seen especially precious. They were the leaders of many innovations in subject matter, style and technique. It is interesting that in spite of this fact, they frequently reached back to the culture and art of the classical Heian period, towards the life of which they felt some profound nostalgia.

I am well aware that our knowledge concerning the exact historical setting of art patronage in Japan is still rather limited. New works of art have been located or identified lately in Japan, and we can expect the evaluation and summary of the related historical sources only from the Japanese specialists. But it is my hope that such a short, limited survey may also contribute to the understanding of the spirit and styles of the Japanese arts.

László Ferenczy


  1. Sadler, A. L. : Cha-no-yu, The Japanese tea ceremony, London, 1963. pp. 103, 119–120
  2. Ragué, Beatrix von: Geschichte der japanischen Lackkunst, Berlin, 1967. p. 194.
  3. Duus, P. : Feudalism in Japan, New York, 1969, pp. 90-92.
  4. Ragué, op.cit. pp. 252, 255.
  5. Bohner, H. : Zur japanischen Keramik, Nachrichten der Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, No. 99. Hamburg, 1966. p. 83.
  6. Jenyns, Soame : Japanese porcelain. London, 1965. 46-, 224-.
  7. Yamane, Yuzo : Ogata Kõrin and the art of the Genroku Era, Acta Asiatica, 15, Tokyo, 1968. p. 70.
  8. Anderson, L. J. : Japanese armour, London, 1968. p. 13.
  9. Sansom, G. : A history of Japan, Vol. 3, London, 1964. 152.
  10. Warner, Langdon : The enduring art of Japan. Cambridge, Mass., 1958, pp. 67-68.
  11. Leach, Bernard : Kenzan and his tradition. London, p. 136 et seq.