Watanabe Kazan, born October 20, 1793 in Edo, now Tōkyō, and died November 23, 1841, was a Japanese genre painter and portraitist.
His real name was Watanabe Sadayasu, his nicknames Shian and Hakuto, his pet name Nobori, and his brush names Kazan, Gîkaido, Zanrakudô, Sakuhi-Koji, Kintonkyo and Zuiankoji.
Kazan's tragic life and work symbolize the difficulties of the transitional period during which Japan was experiencing the last tremors of a feudal system that was trying to contain new ideas.
He thus appears as an innovative spirit, but nevertheless faithful to the feudal system, as an innovative painter who remains traditionalist, and embodies the difficult passage between the old regime and the modern era, between a declining pictorial tradition and the renewal coming from the West.
Son of a samurai from the Tawara clan of Mikawa (now Aichi Prefecture), he received a careful education despite the financial embarrassments of his family who were forced to direct him towards painting.
Kazan thus led a double life as a painter and a swordsman, devoted to his clan whose domains he administered as chief of his co-vassals. As a frequenter of progressive intellectuals (Rangaku-Sha), he formed a circle where various possibilities of reform were discussed, based on texts from the Netherlands.
Misunderstood, this non-revolutionary group attracted the hatred of Confucian conservatives and, in 1839, Kazan and his friends were charged and imprisoned for conspiracy.
Kazan escaped the death penalty thanks to high-level interventions and was placed under house arrest in Mikawa. Dismissed from his position, he falls into extreme poverty and, although living from his painting, he is pursued by the slander and malice of his detractors. Fearing to cause trouble to his suzerain, and out of loyalty to him, he killed himself in 1841.
It was in the studio of Bunchō (1763-1840) that Kazan acquired his first pictorial experiences. Kazan has a rather realistic touch, because the European influence reinforces his desire for objectivity and truth.
His portraits occupy a prominent place in Japanese painting, reaching a point of balance between the ancestral tradition and the new realism.
To the line and color that emphasize realism and decorative effect, Kazan adds volume through a particularly successful modeling. His research is fruitful for Japanese painting, because while welcoming the lessons of the West, he remains within the tradition by creating an original realism.