Born in the town of Akechi in Mino province, he was originally named Tamenosuke, but later took on a number of pseudonyms, including Hôsui and Seiko. His father's name was Yamamoto Gonpachi. Hôsui first began practicing painting under Kubota Yukie in Kyoto in 1868, at the age of 18. At that time, he trained in creating traditional-style ink paintings in the literati nanga mode, under the name Umetani. The work of Western-style painter Goseda Hôryû caught his eye, however, and beginning in 1871, he studied under Hôryû in Yokohama for a time, where he was influenced as well by Hôryû's son Goseda Yoshimatsu, and the political cartoon artist Charles Wirgman. Once the Technical Art School (Kobu Bijutsu Gakkô) opened in Tokyo in 1876, Hôsui moved there, where he began to study under Antonio Fontanesi, an Italian master brought in by the Japanese government to teach modern Western painting. The following year, he showed a painting entitled "Kôtô-no-naishi Viewing the Moon" at the First National Industrial Exposition, and was awarded third place, gaining some degree of recognition.
The following year, in 1878, Hôsui left for Paris, where he was accepted as a student at the École de Beaux-Arts, and began studying under Jean-Leon Gerome, one of the greatest masters of Academic and Orientalist painting of his time. Hôsui remained in Paris for roughly ten years, becoming an accomplished Academic painter in his own right, completing highly polished and realistic depictions of nudes, portraits, and landscapes; after his return to Japan, he would also paint numerous works depicting more traditional Japanese subjects, such as Urashima Tarô and the twelve animal zodiac signs, albeit in wholly Western style. While in Paris, he is also credited with "discovering" Kuroda Seiki, a talented painter who had come to Paris to study law, and with mentoring Kuroda and encouraging him to pursue painting more seriously.
Hôsui returned to Japan on July 20, 1887, and in November to December of that year joined Prime Minister Itô Hirobumi and other prominent officials on an official Imperial inspection tour of Kyûshû and Okinawa. As a yôga painter, he was valued for his skill to depict reality realistically and accurately, and so he was charged with "recording" the landscapes and sights of Okinawa for the government. Upon his return to Tokyo, he presented the Imperial Household with 20 paintings depicting famous Okinawan sites such as Shuri castle, Sôgen-ji and the ruins of Nakagusuku gusuku, as well as other landscapes and genre scenes. These paintings remain today in the Museum of the Imperial Collections (San no maru shôzôkan) at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Hôsui opened his own painting school in 1889 along with Gôda Kiyoshi, calling it the Seikôkan. He became, that same year, one of the founding members of the Meiji Bijutsukai ("Meiji Arts Society"), the first established association of yôga painters. He later turned this school over to Kuroda Seiki, who renamed it the Tenshin Dôjô and made it into the premier center for plein-air painting in Japan. Along with Kuroda he also helped establish the Hakubakai, or "White Horse Society," in 1896, another prominent Meiji era group of Western-style artists.
In his final years, he was an official government painter in the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War, and was also active in designing and producing set pieces for the theatre. He died in 1906; the Imperial Household Agency and Tokyo University of Fine Arts are the chief institutions holding collections of his works.
- Harada Minoru. Akiko Murakata (trans.). Meiji Western Painting. New York: Weatherhill, 1974. pp38-39.
- Kumamoto Kenjirô, "Yamamoto Hôsui ni tsuite," Bijutsu kenkyû 239 (1965).