Expression of the Four Seasons in Japanese Paintings

Having come across the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures through the library it runs, I also discovered that it puts on Monthly lectures on differing topics. The November lecture was given by Emura Tomoko who is Head of the Archives Section at the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Tobunken). She was introduced a specialist in history of pre-modern Japanese art with a particular interest in paintings by Rinpa artists.

She started by describing how the expression of the seasons took different forms, for example folding screens and hanging scrolls. The images frequently incorporated Waka poems; “The word waka means ‘Japanese poem,’ and it is a form so basic to Japanese literature that Japanese still study and write it today” (What Is a Waka? s.d.). The form of poetry, the Haiku, with which we are probably more familiar, derives from the Waka.

Around the 10th century poems and calligraphy were greatly enjoyed, people would compose poems while looking at paintings on folding screens. The poems were then attached to the screen. These folding screens provided a convenient format for paintings, there could be several panels and would be looked at when sitting on the floor as opposed to the western tradition of hanging paintings on a wall at eye level when standing.

Hanging scrolls were also used for paintings, these were usually displayed in alcoves in a house to be admired by viewers. They were generally displayed for special events and, when the event was over, were taken down, rolled up, and stored in a box. Owners were encouraged to keep the scrolls on display only for the duration of the specific event.

One of the most significant art schools in Japan is the Kano school. “The Kano school was the longest lived and most influential school of painting in Japanese history; its more than 300-year prominence is unique in world art history”. (Department of Asian Art s.d.).

We heard how different flowers represent the seasons in traditional Japanese art:

  • Plum and Cherry                                              –              Spring
  • Peony                                                                      –              Summer
  • Chrysanthemum and Maple leaf            –              Autumn
  • Camellia                                                                 –              Winter

Kano Eitoku was described as one of the most remarkable artists of the Kano School. A six-panel screen of his was used as an illustration. Titled Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons it illustrates how the progression of the seasons can be shown across a single scene, through the inclusion of birds and flowers from different seasons on the same screen.

Six-panel folding screens; ink, colour, gold, and gold leaf on paper; 1566.  Fine Art Museum, Kobe, Japan. Attributed to Kanō Eitoku [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The talk moved on to the combination of painting and poetry, mention was made of an album of Waka poems drawn onto paintings. The album was of poems on pictures of flowersand grasses of the four seasons; the painting was by Tawaraya Sotatsu and the calligraphy by Hon’ami Koetsu. This led to discussion of the Rimpa (or Rinpa) school. “Rimpa refers to the school and style of images developed by Hon’ami Kōetsu and Tawaraya Sōtatsu in the early Edo period (1615-1868). Promoting its distinct decorative style made in response to past works, Rimpa school created its own unique aesthetics through decades of reiterations” (Yoko 2015).

Flowers and Grasses of the Four Seasons; gold, silver and colour on paper. Sotatsu/Koetsu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Central to the Rinpa aesthetic is the evocation of nature as well as eye-catching compositions that cleverly integrate text and image” (Carpenter 2012 p11). The Rinpa style continues to the present day, but the next Rinpa artist mentioned in the lecture was Ogata Korin. He too painted Flowers and Grasses of the Four Seasons, originally as a handscroll then as a folding screen. He used the conventional technique of showing different seasonal flowers on the same screen to illustrate the passage of time.

One of Korin’s best known works is Irises.

Pair of six-panel screens; ink and color on gold-foiled paper, Japan Edo period, 18th century, © Nezu Museum, Japan (

“Using only green and blue on a gold background, he vividly depicts stylized clumps of irises in a composition that is simple, clear and rhythmical, foreshadowing a modern graphic style” (Tamashige 2015).

What was interesting from the lecture was that studies have revealed that some of the Irises have been stencilled on to the screen, rather than them all having been freely hand painted. However, because the screens, in normal use, present the flowers in a zig-zag pattern, this is not at all obvious. I thought that this was a good example of the need to present works of art in the way that they were initially designed. Some galleries might present such a screen flat against a wall, but this is not the original intention of the artist, and the viewer might get more from seeing the work as originally intended.

This work is also a good example of how Japanese art (in this style) focuses on short-lived beauty – most flowers bloom and last for just a few days. The lecturer stated that, traditionally, Japanese people felt affection for transient images. What the artist is doing is preserving that moment. Traditional Japanese flower painting captures ephemeral moments in transient scenes and makes them permanent in the painting.



Carpenter, J.T. (2012) Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Department of Asian Art (s.d.) The Kano School of Painting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At: (Accessed on 26 November 2019)

Kōrin, O. (s.d.) Irises. At: (Accessed on 22 August 2019)

Tamashige, S. (2015) Korin: the late bloomer with innovative in style | The Japan Times. At: (Accessed on 27 November 2019)

Yoko, K. (2015) ‘Museums in Japan‘ In: e-Magazine, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures Summer (12) [online] At: (Accessed on 27 November 2019)