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[A Visit to the Atelier] Kawanabe Kyosai: The Genius Painter of the Bakumatsu and Meiji Eras

Some of the diverse and lesser-known individual artworks of 19th-century artist Kawanabe Kyosai are introduced with special features analyzed by the author.



Image 3: Harvest Dance (Oban Triptych). (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

This time, I would like to introduce Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), an artist who was active during the late Edo period and Meiji era.  

Kyosai was a popular painter with exceptional talent who even won the top spot in the ukiyo-e rankings of his time. His bold and carefree personality, free-thinking, and outstanding skills captivated many people. 

Studying Under Utagawa Kuniyoshi

It is well known that Kyosai taught the English architect Josiah Conder, who designed buildings such as the Rokumeikan and the Holy Resurrection Cathedral. He was known to be very good at teaching, and his disciples rapidly improved their painting skills. However, there is a story that he stopped teaching for a while because his disciples often sold counterfeit works of their master Kyosai for money.  

There is a picture depicting Kyosai (then called Shuzaburo) as a child showing his paintings to the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. He started his career as a painter at the young age of seven.

Image 1: Kyosai Gadan Supplementary Volume: Kyosai's Childhood, Enrolling at Kuniyoshi's Workshop. (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

Kuniyoshi enjoyed visiting the Yoshiwara pleasure district, and sometimes he took the young Shuzaburo with him. However, when Shuzaburo's father found out, he was angry and made Shuzaburo leave Kuniyoshi's workshop. In fact, Kuniyoshi's visits to the Yoshiwara were mainly to gather material for ukiyo-e while chatting with courtesans. But It's not surprising that Shuzaburo's father, unaware of this, got angry.

For this reason, Shuzaburo's apprenticeship under Kuniyoshi ended after only two or three short years. However, he learned a lot during that time, and even after becoming a master artist himself, he often talked about those days to people.  

Techniques Studied at the Kano School

Later, Shuzaburo's father sent him to study with the Kano School artist Maemura Towa. Soon, Shuzaburo showed his talent and left behind many distinguished works under the artist name Toiku.  

In other words, Kyosai acquired his distinctive versatile style by learning the techniques of depicting various aspects of ordinary people's lives from Kuniyoshi, and the rigorous stylistic beauty from the Kano school, which other painters did not possess.  


A Love of Frogs

Now, let's take a look at some of his works.

Image 2: Elegant Battle of Frogs (Oban Triptych). (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

Speaking of frogs, one recalls the medieval Scrolls of Frolicking Animals attributed to Toba Sojo. Kyosai, who was also skilled at drawing animals, particularly liked to depict frogs. This work can be considered one of his masterpieces. It is said that Kyosai depicted the Boshin War (1868-69), likening it to a battle of Frogs.

It is said that the first thing Kyosai drew when he was three years old was a frog, and his tombstone in Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, is also a natural stone resembling a frog, according to his will.

Image 3: Harvest Dance (Oban Triptych) (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

This work Harvest Dance also features splendid group portraits spanning three sheets. Kyosai particularly excelled at group portraits, as can be seen in the Elegant Battle of Frogs mentioned earlier. Observing each figure's movement in detail is both interesting and never gets dull.

Image 4: Genroku Era Japan Brocade (Oban Single Sheet). (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

Other Powerful Images From Kyosai

This work displays influences from Kuniyoshi's warrior prints, which Kyosai initially studied, as well as from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a fellow student. It is a powerful work and a masterpiece of warrior imagery he designed during the Meiji period.  

Finally, let's take a look at what could be considered Kyosai's true ability, his paintings.  

Since many of Kyosai's representative paintings can be found in various picture books and on the internet, I would like to introduce two interesting paintings that are not widely known.  

Image 5: Seven Lucky Gods (ink and light colors on paper). (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

The Seven Lucky Gods have been depicted by many painters throughout history, but most of them fell into a state of cliché, and have been forgotten by the public. However, some depictions of the Seven Lucky Gods, in particular this painting by Kyosai, show a rich variety of depictions, from the orthodox to more humorous ones, making them impressive works. 

Image 6: School of Demons (ink and light colors on paper). (© JAPAN Forward from the collection of Toshihiko Isao)

This is a charming painting that condenses Kyosai's charm into a small work. Although demons are usually rough, here they are solemn. They earnestly answer the teacher's questions. Since this humorous theme can also be seen in some of his woodblock prints, it may have been one of Kyosai's favorite themes.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Toshihiko Isao, painter and ukiyo-e scholar
This column is the 17th in a series. Find more columns and insights into Japanese art by the author in the series, A Visit to the Atelier, on JAPAN Forward.


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