Nobuharu was born in 1539 in the coastal village of Nanao, where he got his start painting portraits and sacred art for local temples. Despite limited resources and a family of ordinary standing, the provincial artist was always ambitious. He regularly signed his name elaborately, including both his age and a sack-shaped seal. “The whole history of Buddhist art in Japan from the 7th century to the 16th century—almost a thousand years—we don’t know of any Buddhist painters putting their names [on icons],” Murase noted, adding that the practice may have been seen as audacious or even sacrilegious.
In the exhibition catalogue, Murase relates an example of Nobuharu’s tenacity: According to Sangen’in temple records, when the artist asked the abbot if he could paint the main room’s sliding panels, the religious man responded that it was a space “for Buddha, and therefore should be left undecorated.” As soon as the abbot left for a business trip, however, Nobuharu went ahead and painted each one of the 36 panels.
How he graduated from this steady, decorative temple work into the highest echelons of secular art is the question answered by “A Giant Leap.” In one gallery, four works chart his acquisition of skills and techniques. Portrait of Nawa Nagatoshi, a hanging scroll that features an equestrian scene, evolves into a large-scale composition in the later six-panel folding screens Horses at Pasture. A pair of elegant hanging scrolls called Flowers and Birds of Four Seasons—considered a Tōhaku copy of a Ming-dynasty work—adds context for the influence of Chinese art in his work.