fan crest   title
Home •  Recent Update •  Sales Gallery •  Archives
Articles •  Varia •  Glossary •  Biographies •  Bibliography
Search •  Video •  Contact Us •  Conditions of Sale •  Links

Biography: Kobayashi KIYOCHIKA (小林清親)

Hiratsuka Unichi photo
Kobayashi Kiyochika
Self-portrait, ink and colors on silk,
circa 1907

Hiratsuka Unichi signature        Hiratsuka Unichi signature
Shinsei Kobayashi Kiyochika (眞生小林清親)
with (L) Shinsei seal and (R) Kobayashi seal

Kobayashi Kiyochika
(horizontal signature, read L to R)


Hiratsuka Unichi signatureKobayashi Kiyochika (小林清親 1847-1915) was a leading Japanese ukiyo-e artist of the late Edo and Meiji periods. Essentially self-taught, he was a print designer, painter, and illustrator of books, magazines, and newspapers. Born in Edo and the son of a Shogunate samurai administrative official named Kobayashi Seibei, Kiyochika moved to Yokohama in 1873. Kiyochika stated in 1884 that he did not receive instruction from any teacher. He was familiar with the works of a pioneering photographer named Shimooka Renjô (下岡蓮杖 1823-1914) and the English illustrator Charles Wirgman (1835-1891), but there is no confirmed evidence that he studied directly with them (implausible in the case of Shimooka, possible in regard to Wirgman); nevertheless, both had an influence on Kiyochika.

Kobayashi Gentarô (no relation) wrote soon after the artist's death that Kiyochika had studied briefly with the Shijô-school painter Awashima Chingaku (淡島椿岳 1822-1888), the lacquer painter and print artist Shibata Zeshin (柴田是真 1807-1891), the Maruyama-Shijô School painter Suzuki Nanrei (鈴木南嶺 1775-1844), and the highly individualistic ukiyo-e painter and printmaker Kawanabe Kyôsai (河鍋暁斎 1831-1889). However, an actual teacher-student relationship seems doubtful with respect to all four of these artists. We may surmise that Kiyochika was primarily self-taught, especially in the ukiyo-e manner, while Western methodologies were familiar to him, possibly through the art of Western artists in Yokohama or Japanese artists trained in Western styles.

One of Kiyochika's important early series is his Tokyo meisho-zu (Famous sites of Tokyo, 東京名所図) comprising ninety-three views of Tokyo published from 1876 to 1881. In many of these prints he famously explored the effects of light and shadow in works often referred to as kôsenga ("light-ray pictures": 光線画). The term (apparently) first appeared in an article by Kobayashi Gentarô, titled Kobayashi Kiyochika to Tokyo fûkei hanga (Kobayashi Kiyochika and Tokyo landscape prints, 小林清親と東京風景版畫 1916) to describe the realistic treatment of light and shadow in the artist's views of Tokyo. Here and elsewhere, Kiyochika advanced the modeling of landscape and architectural elements under variable illuminations, often demonstrating greater subtlety and more descriptive power than had earlier ukiyo-e artists. He drew scenes with moonlight, lightning, lanterns, gaslight, fires, fireworks, and explosions. Roughly one-quarter of his Tokyo prints are night scenes.

Among the works published by Matsuki Heikichi during the early years of Kiyochika's career were experimental woodcuts that had the look and feel of Western intaglio and planar printmaking techniques. Also influenced by Western paintings and printmaking were Kiyochika's images demonstrating the effects of light and dark. In the example shown above, Nihonbashi yoru no zu (View of Japan Bridge at night, 日本橋夜之図) from 1881, Kiyochika explored the atmospheric effects of gaslight on the modernizing metropolis of Tokyo. Nightlife in the city was utterly changed by the expanding use of artificial lighting, which opened possibilities for labor and leisure activities that had not been available during the Edo period. One year after the publication of this image, trolley cars were in operation down the middle of the Nihonbashi. Electric power would be widely available throughout the city by 1886. The illumination in the Nihonbashi print was typical for Kiyochika's kôsenga, producing silhouettes set against a starkly lit composition.

In 1884-85, Kiyochika designed at least 34 prints for a series called Musashi hyakkei no uchi (One hundred views of Musashi, 武蔵百景之内). The debt owed Utagawa Hiroshige I is obvious, yet the designs overall express a different sensibility reflecting the new Meiji spirit, one of progress, enlightenment, and assimilation of Western influences.

Kiyochika produced many satirical prints, among them Kiyochika ponchi (Kiyochika's Punch, 清親ポンチ). He also produced a series of color cartoons titled Nippon banzai hyakusen hyakushô (Hurrah for Japan! One Hundred Selections, One Hundred Laughs, 日本万歳百撰百笑) in 1894-1895. For a third project, Kiyochika worked with Hara Taneaki (原胤昭 1853-1942), a former shogunal retainer turned Christian prison chaplain and book seller who published two comic series of woodblocks by Kiyochika featuring varied physiognomies on a theme known as Hyaku mensô (One hundred faces, 百面相). The idea was inspired by a late Edo-period vaudeville act in which a performer would demonstrate varied emotional states and social types through rapid changes of facial expression aided by stage props.

After focusing nearly exclusively for more than a decade on his satirical political lithographs for the magazine Marumaru chinbun from August 1882 until his resignation in July 1893, Kiyochika experienced a renewal of interest in the woodcut medium. The outbreak of war with China seems to have been the impetus. The war also revived an increasingly moribund ukiyo-e industry overall. Less appetizing to modern sensibilities, these Nisshin sensô-e (Prints of the Sino-Japanese War, 日清戦争絵) designed by Kiyochika and other artists propped up claims of ethnic superiority and racial hostility that the Japanese directed against China and its people, despite Japan's frequent emulation of Chinese culture over the centuries. Donald Keene wrote that, "Japanese feelings towards the country China, as contrasted with Chinese culture, was more ambivalent." The titles of war triptychs were most often written in Chinese, whereas the subjects invariably portrayed the Chinese enemy as subordinate, weak, and disorganized. [Smith ref. p. 86]

Late in Kiyochika's career, the publisher Takegawa Seikichi (松木平吉) issued in quick succession three series of triptychs depicting women. The first was Shiki asobi (Pleasures of the four seasons, 四季遊) in 1895. The second, published from February to September 1896, was titled Hana moyô (Flower patterns, 花模様), for which ten prints are known (a later reprinting was published by Kokeidô, run by Akiyama Buemon, 秋山武右衛門). The third was called Kodai moyô (Ancient patterns, 古代模様), released in October 1896, with only three known compositions. All the triptychs in these series feature closeups of women in the foreground and distant figures in the background associated with particular historical era.

In November 1896, Kiyochika began a series of 28 landscape prints depicting scenic spots in Japan. Titled Nihon meishô zue (Views of the famous sights of Japan, 日本名勝圖繪 or 日本名勝図会), it was, with the exception of the Tokyo triptychs issued earlier the same year, his first sustained effort at landscape since the Musashi hyakkei no uchi (One Hundred Views of Musashi, 武蔵百景之内) of 1884-1885. The publisher was Matsuki Heikichi V whose father had launched Kiyochika’s career twenty years earlier.

Works by Kiyochika can be found in many institutional collections, including the Adachi City Museum of Art; Amherst Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Gallery of New South Wales; Art Institute of Chicago; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK; British Museum, London; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Chiba City Museum of Art; Cincinnati Museum of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Hagi Uragami Memorial Museum, Yamaguchi; Harvard Art Museums; Ikeda Bunko Library, Osaka; Keio University Library; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Mead Art Museum, Amherst; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Bruxelles; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Diet Library, Tokyo; National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian, Wash. DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Tokyo National Museum; Waseda University, Tokyo; and Worchester Art Museum, MA.

The information on this page is based on John Fiorillo's web page: