Kuroda Seiki : Itinerary of a Japanese artist in Paris

At the end of the nineteenth century, Japan invaded the French art scene: from painting and sculpture Salons to literary ones, Japan becomes source of fascination and representations of young women in kimonos multiply. Incidentally, Western arrival in Japan provoked a lot of reactions on the Japanese artists’ behalves. This marks the starting point of yō-ga, a style meant to contrast with Japanese artistic creation, that Kuroda Seiki manages to revolutionize through his contact with French art.

European influence on Japan didn’t begin with the country’s forced opening in 1854– when the Jesuit missionaries arrived to Japan in the 16th century, religious images portraying the Virgin, Christ and all the Biblical saints entered Japan never to leave again. They were much appreciated by the elite, and were copied by artists who were a part of missionary-run workshops: at times, it was almost impossible to determine the copy from the original…

When Japan was forcefully opened, so was oil painting imported- this drove certains artists to abandon the ancestral colors and techniques such as painting on washi, an artisanal paper. At that moment, many workshops opened their doors and taught oil painting, perspective and European realism to artists who were willing.

Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) was born a little before the wind of globalization blew onto Japanese society and art. As the son of a samurai from the Shimazu clan, he was always lose to the nerve center of power, and therefore was exposed to all the modern trends of the Meiji era. Although he was destined to occupy the highest position of power in the Japanese Empire, Kuroda Seiki decided to leave law school and learn English following a trip to Paris within the Japanese delegation to France. in 1886, he joined academic painter Raphael Collin’s studio where he met Kume Keiichirō with whom he explored outdoor paintings according to the quick and frank impressionist touch.

Keiichiro Kume, L'Île de Brehat, 1891

This study of nature is reinforced by his stay in an agora of artists in Grez-sur-Loing in the south of France in 1890. The bright colors and the variations of lights allow to confer to their works a particular and clean atmosphere, typical of Plein Air artists’ work. Their production is the antithesis of what Japanese artists were practicing: ni-honga (literally “Japanese painting”). That difference also exists within the yō-ga movement itself (literally “Western painting”) since some artists have a particular attraction for the school of Barbizon.

Kuroda Seiki, Paysage
Hashimoto Gaho, Mangrove blanche

If Kuroda Seiki’s landscapes are remarkable by their tone and their impressionist touch, it’s with Morning Toilette, a work that was destroyed during the 2nd world war, that the artists truly shines. Nudes are prohibited in Japan at the time, but this great painting is all the rage in Paris, and is accepted and greatly praised in 1893 by the Academy of Fine Arts.

Kuroda Seiki, Toilette du Matin

This work of art marks the end of Kuroda Seiki’s Parisian stay, and in his luggage he takes his many female nudes who mimic that same touch and brutal realism, recalling those of Gustave Courbet.

Kuroda Seiki, Nu féminin

Once in Japan, Kuroda goes to Kyoto to re-absorb the local culture and abandons the representation of Western women. Unlike Tissot or Whistler’s  young women in kimonos who are actually only Western women dressed in rich Japanese fabrics, the artist paints both Japanese women living in the countryside of his homeland and works of art representing myths and themes such as love or courage, according to Japanese tradition. This is where the artist’s duality lies, since he sometimes associates a pictorial touch with subjects that could be considered as academic. If the themes remain specific to the country of the rising sun, the technique of oil painting remains privileged by Kuroda and the artists of the yō-ga, which he influences upon his return from Paris.

James Tissot, japonaise au bain
Kuroda Seiki, Maiko

Japanese society is shocked by Kuroda’s nudes which were exhibited in Tokyo starting 1895. Morning Toilette won an award at the fourth “National Exhibition for the Promotion of the Industry” in Kyoto, but it amassed its fair share of criticism. Yet, the artist’s fame continues to grow: as one of the few artists to have studied in Paris, his technique is admired and he is considered particularly qualified to teach his fellow artists the evolutions and tendencies of Western Art of the late 19th Century. As the director of the Tenshin Dojo School, he passed on the Western precepts and rudiments of Plein Air painting: thus the Western-Inspired painting revolution was launched.

He was a teacher at the School of Fine Arts in Tokyo, a silver-medalist at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris for his triptych Wisdom, Impression, Feeling, an acclaimed court painter with the imperial family in 1910- Kuroda Seiki has had significant impact on Japanese art and is one of the first to introduce these Western-style works to a wide audience. He inspires many artists who push realism to its climax like Asai Chû or Hara Busho.

kuroda Seiki, Sagesse, Impression, Sentiment
Asai Chû, Jeune femme cousant

Although yō-ga has never been preferred and sometimes even was rejected as opposed to the ni-honga, Kuroda Seiki succeeded in making the Japanese public, and not just the elite anymore, accept Western realistic painting. As for his nudes, they become an object of art and not only a body exhibited at the expense of decency.

Kuroda Seiki, Etude d'un nu féminin
Hara Busho, Nu

Nancy Ba, 21, is an Art History graduate specializing in Contemporary Art at the Sorbonne (Paris IV), Paris

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