Historical Note


Although born and raised in Okayama, Japan, Yasuo Kuniyoshi considered himself an American artist. Specifically, he was a painter, lithographer, photographer and teacher, whose work has been described as "Asian in spirit but Western in technique." Or to paraphrase a contemporary Japanese critic, Kuniyoshi's work blended the "painting of today" with "Japanese poem and tradition." While some scholarship states the year of his birth as 1893, Kuniyoshi was more likely born September 1, 1889, which as the year of the cow would explain his penchant for depicting the animal in his works of art and signature seal.

Kuniyoshi came to America in 1906, settling first in Seattle and then Los Angeles, where from 1908 to 1910, he attended the Los Angeles School of Art Design. That latter year, he moved to New York, and made the east coast his permanent home, spending extended periods of time in Woodstock, New York and Ogunquit, Maine. In New York City, he studied at the National Academy with Robert Henri, and from 1916 to 1920 at the Art Students League with Kenneth Hayes Miller. His first solo exhibition was in 1922 at the Daniel Gallery, and in 1925 he made his first trip to Europe, spending much of his time in France where he was greatly influenced by the works of Renoir, Cezanne and in particular the Bulgarian painter Jules Pascin, who was active in France at the time. He took up photography in the 1920s and during his second trip to Paris in 1928, Kuniyoshi studied lithography. He traveled twice to Japan, in 1931 and then in 1935 when he was awarded a Gugghenheim Fellowship. The fellowship also allowed him to travel to Mexico. In 1933 he began teaching at the Art Students League, a position he held until his death two decades later. He also taught at the New School of Social Research, also in New York. During the mid-1930s he worked for the WPA in the graphics division of the Federal Arts Project. By this time, Kuniyoshi also was exhibiting frequently at the Corcoran Gallery and Whitney Museum of American Art biennials, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Other exhibitions included those at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Venice Biennale and Tokyo-MoMA. His "Carnival" lithograph was included in the 1952 "Decade of American Printmaking" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Over his career, Kuniyoshi's work evolved: from combinations of humor and fantasy to evocative still lifes and moody studies of women. His palette also changed from earthy tones to blues and cool colors. According to "Who was who in American art," the "somber notes" surfacing in Kuniyoshi's later works are a result of living in America during WWII, and the artist being made to feel like an "enemy alien," even though he had lived in the U.S. for more than three decades. Kuniyoshi married Katherine Schmidt in 1919. They divorced in 1932, and in 1935 he married Sara Mazo. Kuniyoshi died in 1953.

Works Consulted

Shubert, Katherine Schmidt. Interview by Paul Cummings. Oral history transcript for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 8, 16 Dec. 1969. Online 9 Nov. 2006.

Tepfer, Diane. Review of Dictionary of American Art by Matthew Baigell. Winterthur Portfolio 16 (Spring 1981): 85-87. Online 10 Nov. 2006.

3D-Dali. Artist-Biographies, s.v. Kuniyoshi, Yasuo. Online 9 Nov. 2006.

Who was who in American art: 1564-1975, s.v. Kuniyoshi, Yasuo.

Goodall, Donald B. Introduction to Kuniyoshi Yasuo ten =: Yasuo Kuniyoshi/ [hunshu, Tokyo Shimbun]. Tokyo Shimbun, 1975.