In the history of Japanese painting, from the Heian period (794〜1185), there have been two major movements in art, Karae (唐絵) which was the Chinese style and Yamatoe (大和絵) which was the Japanese style.
Karae, was strongly influenced by Chinese paintings, which were of Chinese places or famous people using only black ink. On the other hand, Yamatoe was scenery such as the daily life of the common people painted with bright colors.
Ukiyoe emerged from the tradition of Yamatoe in the Edo period (1603〜1867). Ukiyoe has several aspects which are distinct from western pictures : it is drawn only with outlines, brightly colored with the painting title and artist’s name written in large letters in the painting.
In the nineteen century when Ukiyoe was introduced in European countries, many painters noticed these aspects which they had never seen in Western paintings.
The European painters known to be influenced by Ukiyoe are Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Klimt and Vincent van Gogh.
Although the trend of Ukiyoe ended at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868〜1912), the style is still alive today in Japanese animation and comics.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳：1797〜1861) was an Edo period master of Ukiyoe wood block print. His depictions included landscapes, beautiful women (Geishas), Kabuki actors, and cats.
Influenced the Ukiyoe warrior prints, by age 12 he had impressed the Ukiyoe artist Utagawa Toyokuni and joined his studio in 1811.
His first works were book illustrations and then he turned to warrior prints. Kuniyoshi was a popular teacher. Kuniyoshi was a great cat lover, and it was said that his studio was full of them.
Often he could be seen working with a kitten snuggled up in his kimono. When one of his cats died, he would have it sent to a nearby temple, and Buddhist altar for his deceased cats was erected in his home. There he kept tablets with the cats’ Buddhist names on the altar.
These cats are actually purses taking style cues from famous Ukiyoe woodblock prints from the Edo period.
First up, we have a kitty based on a piece called the “Mikaeri Bijin” (Beauty Glancing Back), which was painted by Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣：1618-1694), who was known as the “father of Ukiyoe” and mostly painted kabuki scenes and beautiful prostitutes.
Called the “Mikaeri Bineko”, which translates to “Beautiful Cat Glancing Back”, the white hair ties and green obi sash details are dutifully replicated on the clip-top purse. The orange, blue, and white flowers also appear on the red kimono, with the cute addition of a paw print in the design.
We have a painting from 1794 known as “Otani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei”, painted by Tōshūsai Sharaku, whose real identity remains a mystery to this day.
Active for only ten months between 1794 and 1795, some believe the artist could have been a Noh actor, a little-known poet or perhaps even the famous Ukiyoe master Katsushika Hokusai (c.1760-1849).
Despite his short active period, the artist made over 140 prints, mostly of kabuki actors, throwing the public off balance with a realism that often captured the subject’s unflattering details.
However, there’s nothing unflattering about this kitten, especially since he’s showing off a cute, pink paw-pad in the dramatic style of Otani Oniji III. Called “Nyaraku”, a play on words which puts Sharaku, the artist’s name, alongside “nya” an abbreviation of the Japanese word for “meow”, this cat wears stylised kabuki makeup and a cat paw as a family crest.
The last Edo-styled kitten to join the lineup is called “Poppen”. Based on the famous Ukiyoe “Poppen o Fuku Musume” or “Young Lady Blowing on a Poppen” by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753-1806), the beauty’s feline doppelgänger wears a big smash of red lipstick and a fancy, red-ribboned top-knot.
In her hand, she holds a poppen, a glass bauble toy popular with geisha during the Edo period. When blown at its flat end, the toy would make a popping sound, similar to a whistle.