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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.
- Oral history transcript for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 8, 16 Dec. 1969. Online 9 Nov. 2006. Shubert, Katherine Schmidt. Interview by Paul Cummings.
- Winterthur Portfolio 16 (Spring 1981): 85-87. Online 10 Nov. 2006. Tepfer, Diane. Review of Dictionary of American Art by Matthew Baigell.
- Online 9 Nov. 2006. 3D-Dali. Artist-Biographies, s.v. Kuniyoshi, Yasuo.
- Who was who in American art: 1564-1975, s.v. Kuniyoshi, Yasuo.
- Tokyo Shimbun, 1975. Goodall, Donald B. Introduction to Kuniyoshi Yasuo ten =: Yasuo Kuniyoshi/ [hunshu, Tokyo Shimbun].
In the five months worth of personal letters that comprise this collection, the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi describes his 1931-1932 journey back to Japan in vivid detail. Writing to his wife Katherine (Schmidt) in New York, Kuniyoshi details every experience--from spending time with his ailing father and revisiting Okayama, the place of his childhood, to preparing for his one-man exhibitions and adjusting to the frequent social functions required by those shows and to other customs that now seemed awkward and strange to the artist. Kuniyoshi's chronicle begins around September 29, 1931, as he traveled by train through parts of the West, continuing to Vancouver where he boarded the ship Hiye Maru. He recounts the people he met, his meals and facilities and the entertainment provided on the ship.
Arriving in Japan by mid-October, Kuniyoshi traveled between Tokyo, Osaka and Okayama. Throughout his stay, he continually notes the generous amount of favorable publicity he was receiving. Most of the media coverage came from newspapers, which Kuniyoshi noted as being the power brokers with art exhibitions, and actually responsible for arranging them. As was the custom in Japan at the time, one-man shows were held at department stores, usually for no more than five days since, according to Kuniyoshi, the "circle of interest in art is small." His exhibition in Tokyo, held November 19-23, took place at Mitsukoshi, which still operates today as Japan's oldest department store. Although the exhibition "opened with a bang," it was financially disappointing for the artist, since he needed to come down in price before selling one small still life and five lithographs. One of the many related incidents he also describes is his encounter with the police, who were required to inspect any depictions of nudes that would be publicly displayed. After applying white chalk to the "doubtful" section of one of his works, Kuniyoshi received their approval with a smile. Some of Kuniyoshi's correspondence is written on postcards printed with reproductions of some of his works. Created for sale at his shows, the cards proved popular with visitors, especially when asking the artist for his autograph. The exhibition checklist for the Osaka exhibition, which was held December 18-21 at the Shirokya department store, is also included here. Kuniyoshi claims to have sold only two lithographs at that show. In addition to the Tokyo and Osaka exhibitions, he also mentions a third show in Okayama for the following year. While the one originally scheduled for January 15-22 was cancelled, a small exhibition of his lithographs was held January 17-18.
Of personal matters, Kuniyoshi regularly writes of his father's declining health, which according to the art historian Donald B. Goodall, precipitated this trip. Kuniyoshi spent most of his time in Japan at his father's home in Okayama and describes being with his family, his memories of the area, and an enthusiastic reception with neighborhood friends. Kuniyoshi's father died soon after the artist returned to Americirca Kuniyoshi's letters also suggest that life back in the States for him and his wife, who was also an artist, was a struggle. In many of his letters, he would bid his wife not to worry about money and would express his frustration with the treatment they were receiving from Daniel Gallery. This was the New York City gallery operated by Charles Daniel, one of the early dealers of modern art in Americirca In each letter, which Kuniyoshi wrote on an almost daily basis, he'd express his affections for his wife and how much he missed her, as well as the many gifts of kimonos and unusual or antique Japanese toys he had for her. The last piece of correspondence in this collection is a cable dated February 17, 1932, telling his wife of his safe arrival in San Francisco. During that same year, the couple divorced.
A few photographs of Kuniyoshi's stop in Montana and an original writing in Japanese, laid out in a scroll format, are also included.
Papers were transferred from Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs to the Archives in July 2005.
These materials were arranged and described by Bertha Adams. Funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services.
- Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives
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- Finding aid prepared by Bertha Adams
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- Funded by a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services