Shoen Uemura (born April 23, 1875) was the pseudonym of an important woman artist in Meiji, Taishō and early Shōwa period Japanese painting. Her real name was Uemura Tsune. Shoen Uemura was known primarily for her bijinga paintings of beautiful women in the nihonga style, although she also produced numerous works on historical themes and traditional subjects.
Shoen Uemura was born in Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto, as the second daughter of a tea merchant. She was born two months after the death of her father and thus grew up together with her mother and aunts in an all female household. Her mother’s tea shop attracted a refined, cultured clientele for the art of Japanese tea ceremony. As a child, Shōen drew pictures and exhibited considerable skill at drawing human figures. She became obsessed with the ukiyoe works of Hokusai. Unusually for the times, her mother supported her daughter’s decision to pursue art as a career.
Shoen Uemura was sent to the Kyoto Prefectural Painting School, where she studied under the Chinese style landscape painter Suzuki Shoen (1849–1918). She also began studying the Kano school and Sesshu schools styles of painting, and Suzuki was so impressed that he gave her the first kanji of his own pseudonym of Shōnen in recognition of her talent. This was an exceptional breakthrough for the times; however, for a while her reputation was tainted as she was suspected of a liaison with her teacher, which may have been true; soon afterwards she gave birth to an illegitimate son (the future painter Uemura Shoen) whom she raised as a single mother. She later gave birth to a daughter, and likewise never revealed the name of the father.
Early artistic career
In 1894, Shoen Uemura became a disciple of Kōno Bairei, and later of his successor Takeuchi Seiho. She won her first local award in 1898 with a work selected for the Exhibition of New and Old Art (“Shinko Bijutsu Tenrankai” or “Shinkoten”) in Kyoto, and her first national award in 1900 for a painting submitted to an exhibition sponsored by the Japan Fine Arts Academy (Nihon Bijutsuin) together with the Japan Painting Association (Nihon Kaiga Kyokai). She later focused on producing work for display and sale at the government-sponsored Bunten exhibitions starting from 1907. The purchase of her painting, The Beauty of Four Seasons, by the Duke of Connaught on his visit to Japan, raised her to celebrity status.
Shoen Uemura drew from her artistic training and her personal interest in woodblock prints and older painting styles to develop new techniques and styles of composition with a broad range of subjects. Themes and elements from the traditional Noh drama frequently appeared in her works, but images of beautiful women (bijinga) came to dominate her works. Eventually, her works would combine the themes of both Noh and women together into a single composition. From 1917 to 1922, she entered a slump, and declined to participate in exhibitions for several years.
In 1924, she returned to the art world by exhibiting a painting entitled “楊貴妃” Princess Yohki (Yang Guifei) at the Fourth Exhibition of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. The painting is now at the Shōhaku Museum in Nara.
During the 1930s, when Shoen Uemura was in her late 50s and early 60s, she began producing very large works. These include Spring and Autumn (1930), Jo-no-mai (1936), and Soshi-arai Komachi (1937). Many of these works, especially Jo-no-mai are now considered her greatest masterpieces.
Jo-no-mai and Soshi-arai Komachi are both inspired by the Noh theater. (Jo-no-mai is a dance performed in the introduction to a Noh play, and Soshi-arai Komachi is the title of a Noh play about the Heian period poetess Ono no Komachi.) Both paintings are characterized by a strong feeling of majesty, with a large central figure against an empty background. The use of color is carefully planned so that the light surfaces of clothes and other items stand out prominently against the negative space.
In 1941, Shoen Uemura became the first woman painter in Japan to be invited to join the Imperial Art Academy. She was also appointed a court painter to the Imperial Household Agency in 1944.
During World War II she supported nationalism in pieces like Late Autumn which depicts a beautiful woman doing her part to help the war. Despite her advanced age, she even traveled to the war zone in China at the invitation of the Japanese government for propaganda purposes, to prove to people back home that all was going well. Many of her works from this period, including Twilight (1941), Clear Day (1941), and Late Autumn (1943), depict working women engaged in daily chores, who display a strong sense of vitality. As with her works from the 1930s, Shōen shows a skillful use of negative space, with realistic detail, neat lines and a calm use of color. As the war situation deteriorated, in February 1945, Shōen was evacuated from Kyoto to the suburbs of Nara.
In 1948, she became the first woman to be awarded Japan’s prestigious Order of Culture. Her painting Jo no mae was also the first painting by a Japanese woman to be rated as an Important Cultural Property by the Agency of Cultural Affairs.
Shoen Uemura’s works have been selected as the subject of commemorative postage stamps twice by the Japanese government:
- 1965: Jo no mae, to commemorate the 1965 Philatelic Week
- 1980: Mother and Child, as part of the Modern Art Series
In the year 2000, Uemura Shōen herself was the subject of a commemorative postage stamp under the Cultural Leaders Series by Japan Post.
Argentina, Chile, Croatia, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Singapore, Sweden and the Ukraine