Viscount Kuroda Seiki (August 9, 1866 - July 15, 1924) was the pseudonym of a Japanese painter and teacher, noted for bringing Western theories about art to a wide Japanese audience. He was among the leaders of the y˘ga (or Western-style) movement in late 19th- and early 20th century Japanese painting. His real name was Kuroda Kiyoteru, which uses an alternate pronunciation of the Chinese characters.
Kuroda was born in Takamibaba, Satsuma domain, (present day Kagoshima Prefecture), as the son of a samurai of the Shimazu clan, Kuroda Kiyokane, and his wife Yaeko. At birth, the boy was named Shintar˘; this was changed to Kiyoteru in 1877, when he was 11.
Even before his birth, Kuroda had been chosen by his paternal uncle, Kuroda Kiyotsuna, as heir; formally, he was adopted in 1871, after traveling to Tokyo with both his birth mother and adoptive mother to live at his uncle's estate. Kiyotsuna was also a Shimazu retainer, whose services to Emperor Meiji in the Bakumatsu period and at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi led to his appointment to high posts in the new imperial government; in 1887 he was named a viscount. Because of his position, the elder Kuroda was exposed to many of the modernizing trends and ideas coming into Japan during the early Meiji-era; as his heir, young Kiyoteru also learned from them and took his lessons to heart.
In his early teens, Kuroda began to learn the English language in preparation for his university studies; within two years, however, he had chosen to switch to French instead. At 17, he enrolled in pre-college courses in French, as preparation for his planned legal studies in college. Consequently, when in 1884 Kuroda's brother-in-law Hashiguchi Naouemon was appointed to the French Legation, it was decided that Kuroda would accompany him and his wife to Paris to begin his real studies of law. He arrived in Paris on March 18, 1884, and was to remain there for the next decade.
Studies in Paris
By early 1886 Kuroda had decided to abandon the study of law for a career as a painter; he had had painting lessons in his youth, and had been given a watercolor set by his adoptive mother as a present upon leaving for Paris, but he had never considered painting as anything more than a hobby. However, in February 1886 Kuroda was attending a party at the Japanese legation for Japanese nationals in Paris; here, he met the painters Yamamoto Hosui and Fuji Masazo, as well as art dealer Tadamasa Hayashi, a specialist in ukiyo-e. All three urged the young student to turn to painting, saying that he could better help his country by learning to paint like a Westerner rather than learning law. Kuroda agreed, formally abandoning his studies for the study of painting in August 1887 after trying, and failing, to reach a compromise between the two to please his father. In May 1886, Kuroda entered the studio of Raphael Collin, a noted Academic art painter who had shown work in several Paris Salons. Kuroda was not the only Japanese painter studying under Collin at the time; Fuji Masazo was also one of his pupils.
In 1886, Kuroda met another young Japanese painter, Kume Keiichiro, newly arrived in France, who also joined Collin's studio. The two became friends, and soon became roommates as well. It was during these years that he began to mature as a painter, following the traditional course of study in Academic art while also discovering plein-air painting. In 1890 Kuroda moved from Paris to the village of Grez-sur-Loing, an artists' colony which had been formed by painters from the United States and from northern Europe. Here he found inspiration in the landscape, as well as a young woman, Maria Billault, who became one of his best models.
In 1893, Kuroda returned to Paris and began work on his most important painting to date, Morning Toilette, the first nude painting to be publicly exhibited in Japan. This large work, which was sadly destroyed in World War II, was accepted with great praise by the AcadÚmie des Beaux-Arts; Kuroda intended to bring it with him to Japan to shatter the Japanese prejudice against the depiction of the nude figure. With the painting in hand, he set out for home via the United States, arriving in July 1893.
Back in Japan
Soon after arriving at home, Kuroda traveled to Kyoto to soak up the local culture, which he had missed after spending a full third of his life abroad. He translated what he saw into some of his best paintings, such as A Maiko Girl (n.d., Tokyo National Museum) and Talk on Ancient Romance (1898, destroyed). At the same time, Kuroda was taking on an ever-greater role as a reformer; as one of the few Japanese artists who had studied in Paris, he was thus uniquely qualified to teach his countrymen about what was going on in the Western art world at the time. Furthermore, Kuroda was prepared to teach painting, passing the lessons he had learned along to a new generation of painters. He took over the painting school founded by Yamamoto Hosui, the Seikokan, and renamed it the Tenshin Dojo; the two men together became its directors. The school was modeled on Western precepts, and students were taught the basics of plein-air painting.
Until Kuroda's return to Japan, the prevalent style was based on the Barbizon School, which were advocated by the Italian artist Antonio Fontanesi at the Kobu Bijutsu Gakko from 1876. Kuroda's style of bright color tones emphasizing the changes of light and atmosphere were considered revolutionary.
In April 1895, Kuroda helped to organize the 4th Domestic Exposition to Promote Industry, held in Kyoto; he also submitted Morning Toilette for exhibition in the same venue. Although he was awarded a prize for the painting, the exhibition of a picture of a nude woman before so many visitors outraged many, and led to a furor in the press where critics condemned the perceived flaunting of social standards. None criticized the technical aspects of the painting, choosing instead to lambaste Kuroda for its subject matter. Kume, Kuroda's friend from his Paris days, wrote a spirited defense of the nude figure in art for newspaper publication, but this helped little. For his part, Kuroda maintained a public silence on the issue; privately, however, he expressed the opinion that morally, at least, he had won the day.
Further controversy erupted in October of the same year, when Kuroda exhibited 21 of his works done in Europe at the 7th Exhibition of the Meiji Bijutsukai (Japan's only group of Western-style painters at the time). Kume entered some of his work in the exhibition, as did several students at the Tenshin Dojo. Visitors were struck by the vast differences between Kuroda's plein-air-derived style and the more formal work of the other artists, leading critics to focus on the difference as one between the old and the new. Some even went so far as to suggest a factional difference between two "schools" of painting.
Displeased by the bureaucratic methods inherent in the hierarchy of the Meiji Bijutsukai, Kuroda spearheaded the formation of a new artists' society the following year; he was joined in his effort by Kume, as well as by a number of their students. The new group was christened Hakubakai, after a brand of unrefined sake called Shirouma favored by the men. The Hakubakai had no set rules; rather, it was a free, equal gathering of like-thinking artists whose only goal was to find a way for members to display their works. The group held exhibitions every year until it dissolved in 1911; in total, thirteen shows were set up. A number of artists received their first exposure in these exhibitions; among them were Fujishima Takeji and Aoki Shigeru.
Kuroda Seiki, study for Talk on Ancient Romance (Composition II), 1897, Kuroda Memorial Hall, Tokyo
In 1896, a Department of Western Painting was formed at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko (the forerunner of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music), and Kuroda was invited to become its director. This allowed him to design an even broader curriculum, meant for general students of art, and to be better equipped to reach a broader public. An academic role, with its emphasis on structure and conformity, contrasted with the painter's focus on individuality, but Kuroda nonetheless approached his new role with zeal. Kuroda also insisted that courses in anatomy and the sketching of a live nude model were included in the curriculum.
Ultimately, Kuroda set as his goal the teaching of history painting, feeling that it was the most important genre for students to learn. In his opinion, paintings depicting myths, history, or themes such as love or courage, in which figures painted in poses and compositions reflecting these issues had the highest social value. Coinciding with this was the creation of one of his most ambitious works, the Talk on Ancient Romance. The painting was a large undertaking; it seems to have been among the first for which Kuroda employed charcoal drawings and oil sketches. He would go on to employ this technique in most of his later work, teaching it to his students as well. Talk on Ancient Romance appears to have been intended as a wall panel; as with much of Kuroda's work, it was destroyed during World War II, leaving only preparatory studies to indicate its possible grandeur.
Kuroda Seiki, Lakeside, 1897, Kuroda Memorial Hall, Tokyo
Kuroda was by this time well-regarded not only by the Japanese, but by the art world at large; his triptych Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment (completed 1900) was exhibited alongside his 1897 work Lakeside at the International Exposition held in 1900 in Paris; it received a silver medal. In 1907, members of Hakubakai, Kuroda among them, exhibited in the first Bunten exhibition, sponsored by the Ministry of Education; their continued participation led to the disbanding of the group in 1911. Meanwhile, Kuroda had been appointed a court painter at the Imperial Court in 1910, becoming the first y˘ga artist so honored. From then until the end of his life his artistic activities were curtailed; he became more of a politician and an administrator, only creating small works intended for display.
In 1917, on the death of his father, Kuroda inherited the kazoku peerage title of viscount, and in 1920, was elected to a seat in the House of Peers, the upper house of the Diet of Japan. In 1922, Kuroda was made head of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy. In 1923, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion d'Honneur; this followed numerous other honors from the French government in the years before. Kuroda died at home in Azabukogaicho on July 15, 1924; immediately upon his death the Japanese government conferred upon him the Order of the Rising Sun.
Kuroda Seiki, Sentiment (from Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment), c. 1900, Kuroda Memorial Hall, Tokyo
For most of his career, Kuroda painted in a style which, though basically Impressionistic, owed much to his academic training as well. Generally speaking, his plein-air works are more painterly, less finished, than his more formal compositions. Stylistically, he can be said to owe much to painters like ╔douard Manet, as well as to the Barbizon School and his teacher Collin.
Few artists have had an impact on Japanese art comparable to that made by Kuroda. As a painter, he was among the first to introduce Western-style paintings to a broad Japanese audience. As a teacher, he taught many young artists the lessons that he himself had learned in Paris; among his students were painters like Wada Eisaku, who were to become among the preeminent Japanese painters of their generation. Many students also followed Kuroda in choosing to study in Paris, leading to a greater awareness of broader trends in Western art on the part of many Japanese artists in the twentieth century; a number of these, such as Asai Chu, even went as far as going to Grez-sur-Loing for inspiration.
Perhaps Kuroda's greatest contribution to Japanese culture, however, was the acceptance of Western-style painting he fostered on the part of the Japanese public. Despite their initial reluctance, he was able to convince them to accept the validity of the nude figure as a subject for art. This, coupled with the honors bestowed upon him later in his life, bespeak a broader understanding by the Japanese people, and by their government, as to the importance of y˘ga in their culture.