Ever since the Renaissance, European travelers to Asia have remarked on the lack of single-point perspective in Asian paintings. It was not so much that artists in the East were unaware of such methods, but rather that they considered them unimportant. Nonetheless, that changed in the first half of the eighteenth century. The above is an image of one of the earliest examples of single point perspective in Asian art, a print from Japan dating from around the 1730s, by Okumura Masanobu.
Masanobu’s print depicts the riotous atmosphere inside a Japanese Kabuki theatre. Japanese interiors, with their abundance of oblique and parallel lines that could readily be used as guidelines, were in some ways ideally suited to perspective drawings. This could explain why indoor scenes such as Masanobu’s dominate so many of the early experiments in perspective.
Patrons of the Kabuki theatre typically belonged to the lower rungs of society (i.e. they were not samurai). This group was more likely to be able to afford prints rather than the more expensive paintings, and for this reason the early perspective studies occurred primarily in print (known today as uki-e) rather than in painting form.1
Although considered déclassé by good society, popular culture back then, as today, was at the vanguard of all that was new and different.