Two figures attended by a servant walk along a riverside path, approaching the entrance to a temple where deer graze in the outer precinct. Hills then separate this foreground from a middle ground that features a walled-town and houses. Precipitous peaks rise in the background, crowned by a pagoda and distant houses. Although the artist was clearly a member of the Nanga school of painting, his style is yet unique, unlike that of any other artist. In terms of Chinese painting, the work suggests an eccentric combination of a composition drawn from 16th century Ch’iu Ying together with late Ming expressionistic technique based on the dottings drawn from the style of Sung dynasty Mi Fu. The result compels our attention and interest, for the style is truly something new in a tradition that in Japan was already many decades old.
One of the few discussions of Ryoen in English is that of Paul Berry, most of which is repeated here. “Other than being an Osaka painter who originally studied with Fukuhara Gogaku(1730-99), little is known of his career. Ryoen is a painter of such great thematic and stylistic range, it is hard to speak of a personal style other than his eclectic interest. His paintings include finely crafted blue-and-green landscapes, roughly brushed ink figure paintings, and images of women. Many of his works seem to be based on Ming and Qing paintings, and a recently discovered manuscript sheds light on his experience in studying paintings. This manuscript records the titles, artists, and locations of some hundreds of paintings that he had seen in temples in the Kyoto area during the years 1773-75. He mentions that he was accompanied by the Zen priest Imei Shukei (1730-1808) on his tour of temple collections, where he saw more than two thousand Chinese and Japanese paintings. An 1824 postscript relates that Ryoen’s manuscript was Kimura Kenkado’s (1736-1802) record of Ryoen’s viewing of paintings seen in Kyoto temples. The document gives an invaluable insight into the paintings artists were studying in the mid-Edo period. Ryoen’s extensive experience seeing a huge variety of Chinese paintings must have supplied his imagination with sources for the wide variety of styles exhibited by his own work. Although there is a tradition that he was especially talented in painting images of women, very few examples are now known…”
1. Paul Berry: Unexplored Avenues of Japanese Painting: The Hakutakuan Collection, Seattle, 2002, cat. 74.