Kôno Bairei was a literati painter of the Meiji period, trained in the Maruyama and Shijô schools. He served as head of the Shijô school for a time, played an influential role in promoting "a modern system of arts education", and is generally considered among the most influential literati painters of the period.
The son of a moneylender, began his own art education at the age of eight, when he began studying under Maruyama school artist Nakajima Raishô.
He was established as an independent painter at the time of the Meiji Restoration, though was not at that time successfully making a living selling his works; in fact, he was quite poor.
With the permission of his teacher, he began studying under Shiokawa Bunrin of the Shijô school in 1871, and came to know a number of other poets, painters and amateur scholars active in the literati circles at the time. In 1873, he and Bunrin were invited to show their work at the second Kyoto Exposition; Bairei would go on to show at other Expositions, and to win awards for his art, later in his career.
He became head of the Shijô school when his teacher Bunrin died in 1877; his students soon came to number over sixty. He is said to have been a stern instructor, and quite harsh at times. Some of his most talented students were even expelled from the school multiple times.
Along with Kubota Beisen, Mochizuki Gyokusen and a few others, he co-founded the Kyoto Prefectural Painting School in 1880, after petitioning the prefectural government two years prior. The Kyoto University of Arts which operates today has its origins in this school. Bairei headed the Northern School section for a brief time, before a dispute with Suzuki Hyakunen and his school led to both men leaving the Kyoto Prefectural School. He would return again in 1888, and leave once again in 1890 amid controversy over changes he proposed.
He then founded, along with Kubota Beisen, the Kyoto Young Painters Study Group in 1886, aimed at helping train and promote young painters with a focus on talent rather than lineage. The group was successful for a brief time, but controversy once again erupted as the result of Bairei's attitudes or behavior. The group was dissolved, and Bairei left Kyoto for Nagoya for much of the 1880s, and served as a judge for several painting exhibitions.
Returning to Kyoto, Bairei collaborated with Beisen again, founding the Kyoto Art Association, launching one of the city's first arts journals, and establishing the first major competitive painting exhibition in the city, the "Exhibition of New and Old Art," in 1895.
That year, he served as a member of a jury for an exhibition in Tokyo, but soon returned to Kyoto, and declared his retirement a short time later, having become disillusioned with various aspects of the art world of the time.
Though he ceased teaching, he continued to paint. He was named an Imperial Household Artist in 1893, and completed several commissions for the Higashi Honganji the following year, before dying in 1895.
- Berry, Paul and Michiyo Morioka (eds.) Literati Modern: Bunjinga from Late Edo to Twentieth-Century Japan. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2008. pp277-279.
- Literati Modern. p277.