Kano Masanobu (c. 1434-1530), the founder of the Kano school, was a member of a minor samurai family. Both he and his father served as painters to the Ashikaga shogun Yoshimasa (1436-1490). The rise of the Kano school, however, is generally attributed to the artistic and organizational genius of Masanobu's grandson Motonobu (1476-1559), one of the most influential painters in 16th-century Japan. Motonobu developed a distinctive style of large-scale painting well suited to the increasing demand for large interior decoration schemes, and created a workshop system that could meet the demands of a growing, wealthy clientele. This combination was continued by Motonobu's son Eitoku (1543-1590), and creative variations and reinterpretations of compositional types and motifs invented by these two masters remained the hallmark of the Kano school for centuries.
The Kano school's trademark use of Chinese prototypes is illustrated in this large hanging scroll of Birds, Ducks, and Willow Tree. Four ducks (or small geese) are shown resting on the water near a river bank while several small birds, including swallows, flit near or sit on the branches of a willow tree at the edge of the bank. A larger unidentified bird rests on the lower branch of the tree. The comp