The Artists

Hishida Shunsō
A quiet boy paints cats in a new style

Hishida Shunsō, The Artists
Portrait of Hishida Shunsō

It’s difficult not to project an air of quiet sadness onto the life of Hishida Shunsō, a young painter working in Tokyo at the dawn of the 20th century. Shunsō worked at a crossroads in Japanese art, when the growing influence of Western culture had created a violent split between two competing artistic practices. Yōga painting was progressive, influenced by Western art and technique. Nihonga was the counter movement, an art style that harked back to Japan’s traditional techniques, materials and composition. Both movements were fraught with drama and heated debate, and in the middle of it all, Hishida Shunsō was painting cats.

But Shunsō wasn't just painting cats, he was painting them in a technique called karabake, the “dripping paint on a wet surface and then brushing it with a dry brush to get gradation effects and a degree of luminosity.” While Japan’s art world looked to the West and to their own history, Shunsō traveled abroad. In 1903, at age 29, Shunsō joined the scholar Okakura Tenshin on a two-year tour of Europe, the United States and India. Shunsō saw new worlds of art, and returned to Japan inspired by Mughal techniques and Chinese ink painting. Back in Tokyo, Shunsō debuted a new style at the Bunten exhibition at the Japan Art Academy. His new work was extraordinarily quiet, and carefully composed to make empty spaces, filled only by pale karabake gradients, the focus of the work. It’s a lovely, contemplative style, but Shunsō’s peers didn't think so.

Shunsō’s karabake minimalism was loathed by the art critics of the day, and mocked by his contemporaries—who termed his new style mōrōtai, or ‘vague.’ Shunsō tried to evolve, adding stronger line-work to his paintings, and deepening his color palette, but his health began to deteriorate. Shunsō’s kidneys began to fail, and with his kidneys, his eyesight. In his last years, he painted in rare moments of remission. Two years before his death in 1911, his painting Ochiba won the highest award at the Bunten exhibition. Finally, a recognition of Shunsō’s contribution to Japanese painting.


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Reed Enger, "Hishida Shunsō, A quiet boy paints cats in a new style," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 11, 2017; last modified November 08, 2022,

Hishida Shunsō was a Japanese Artist who Died Young born on September 21, 1874. Shunsō contributed to the Meiji movement and died on September 16, 1911.

Reflection in the Water, Hishida Shunsō

Reflection in the Water 1897

Autumn Landscape, Hishida Shunsō

Autumn Landscape 1899

Fishing Boat on the Lake, Hishida Shunsō

Fishing Boat on the Lake 1900

Hydrangeas, 紫陽花, Hishida Shunsō

Hydrangeas, 紫陽花 1902

Cat and Plum Blossoms, 猫梅, Hishida Shunsō

Cat and Plum Blossoms, 猫梅 1906

Bodhisattva Kenshu, 賢首菩薩, Hishida Shunsō

Bodhisattva Kenshu, 賢首菩薩 1907

Fallen Leaves, 落ち葉 (Ochiba), Hishida Shunsō

Fallen Leaves, 落ち葉 (Ochiba) 1909

Black Cat, 黒き猫, Hishida Shunsō

Black Cat, 黒き猫 1910

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