Editor’s Note: Untold Art History investigates lesser-known stories in art, spotlighting unsung and pioneering artists you should know, as well as uncovering new insights into influential artworks that radically shift our understanding of them.
In atmospheric ink paintings on silk, featuring striking portraits of women and exquisite flora and fauna, the artist Kiyohara Yukinobu struck out on a path in the late 17th century that few women in Japan had navigated. She became an accomplished artist in the Kanō school — the country’s most prestigious lineage of painters — and, for a century after, was name-dropped in literature and theater, earning a long, influential legacy for someone who may have only lived to be 39 years old.
But today, Yukinobu is far from a household name. Her fame has faded as contemporary art historians and institutions have failed to shine a light on her — as well as Japanese women artists from centuries past more widely.
“Very few would recognize (the name) Yukinobu, and that should not be the case,” said Einor Cervone, the associate curator of Asian Art at the Denver Art Museum, which recently concluded a rare exhibition of the work of historical Japanese women artists, titled “Her Brush.” “The reason why she’s not as well-known is not because she was not as accomplished or talented or as prolific… It is because of our historical research and presentation and curatorship that has taken place in the past 100 years or so.”
Though Yukinobu’s scroll paintings are peppered throughout museum collections, including those of the Tokyo National Museum and Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan, they are rarely highlighted, explained Paul Berry, an independent Japanese art historian. (At both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which each have a handful of her works, for example, none are currently on view.)
“(Her paintings) may come out… if you have an exhibition of Edo period Kanō painting,” Berry said. But he laments the fact that Yukinobu — and other women artists from Japan — are not given more prominence beyond occasional inclusion in broad group shows. “So few museums anywhere put on exhibitions of the women who painted or did calligraphy in Japan.”
An unlikely path
Despite the scant details about her life that survive today, Yukinobu makes for a compelling figure. During a highly restrictive era for women, she trained within the Kanō tradition, which combined the ink and brushwork of Chinese paintings with the color and ornament of Japanese art. She became known as “keishū” — a “woman highly accomplished in the arts,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Yukinobu had access to the arts from a young age, giving her a rare opportunity to train. Her granduncle, Kanō Tan’yū, was a monumental figure within the Kanō tradition, and her father, Kusumi Morikage, was renowned as well, though he either left or was ousted from the Kanō school amid conflict with Kanō Tan’yū, Berry explained. (Yukinobu’s brother, too, was an artist, but he was “not nearly as good as her,” Berry added.)
Over the course of her career, Yukinobu seemed “to make a conscious choice” towards portraits of female historical figures and deities, Cervone said, which was unusual considering women’s societal status. These portraits included Yang Guifei, the 8th-century Chinese consort of the Tang emperor Xuanzong whose beauty was legendary; Benzaiten, the Japanese Buddhist goddess of music and the arts; and a canon of 36 women poets from the earlier Kamakura period, whom Yukinobu painted in an album.
But she never signed her paintings, according to Kanō tradition, as Kanō Yukinobu.
Berry believes she may have wanted “to assert her individuality” as an artist, despite painting in the “mainstream” style, though it’s also possible she chose to occupy “an in-between space” because of her father’s divergence from the group. Though Kiyohara was both her husband’s family name as well as her mother’s maiden name, the choice to sign as Kiyohara Yukinobu may have been “setting up a female lineage, rather than reflecting on her husband,” Berry explained.
The fact that Yukinobu married at all made her career path even more unlikely, as girls were often put on track for marriage from a young age, during the time that would be crucial for an artist to train. Female artists, calligraphers and poets were usually nuns or widowed, Berry explained, giving them “greater social mobility as an artist.” (It is unclear whether or not Yukinobu had children, he added.)
Beyond her subject matter, what made Yukinobu’s paintings stand out was the meticulousness of her technique. She had “perfect control of the brush,” Cervone said, “with subtle features and expressive brushwork.”
The fact that she was so successful as a painter “was an exception,” Cervone said. “And maybe the fact that she was a woman was also part of the curiosity which made her more popular at the time.”
An understated legacy
Today, we can understand the extent of Yukinobu’s success through the number of paintings that survive today, which would have been commissioned, as well as the fine and costly materials she used — such as expensive silks, white paint made from crushed shells and gold — that “would have been hard to procure if you weren’t a superstar,” Cervone explained. The Kanō school was known for serving wealthy and powerful patrons, including the ruling Tokugawa shogunate of feudal Japan and their vassals, the daimyo.
Although Yukinobu’s specific patronage is unclear, Cervone is confident her work was “coveted… by anyone who could afford her.”
But there’s another, more underhanded indication of her popularity: the prevalence of forgeries of her work. The Denver Art Museum alone has 13 imitations of Yukinobu paintings, and only one authentic work. (As part of the show, they exhibited one of the pieces with a forged signature alongside her actual work.)
Berry says the sheer quantity of forgeries he’s seen “shows that she had what we call today a strong fan base.”
Famous artists were — and still are — often copied, and the scope of the market for forgeries of her paintings is difficult to quantify. They aren’t easy to spot, either, with many created during her own time with materials that have aged just the same. Still, “it speaks volumes, because you don’t put out a Picasso-forged signature on something if Picasso is not going to get you more money,” Cervone said.
Berry hopes that more institutions will bring their Yukinobu works out of storage and onto gallery walls in future, and believes there are easily enough existing works for a prolific solo exhibition. At the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo in 2015, he was pleased to discover a number of her works exhibited — though in a show about her father. He also points to the Jissen Women’s University in Shibuya as a small institution putting in the work to bring more attention to Japanese female artists more broadly, through research as well as exhibitions.
“There’s a core group of female scholars who are pursuing this (the study of Japanese women artists),” he explained. “I would like to say there’s a core group of male scholars, too,” he said with a small laugh. “I’m sometimes frustrated that things haven’t moved faster.”
Though her paintings may only occupy small portions of collections around the world, Cervone hopes Yukinobu’s mark-making centuries ago will eventually grow in its renown, and more people will find resonance with her work.
“The idea of the brushstroke as a reflection of one’s innermost truth is something that is not just in Japanese calligraphy and painting, but also throughout East Asia,” Cervone said. “So when a woman 400 years ago decides that she can take brush to silk, and that there’s something that she can leave behind, it’s a way of taking up space as a woman in a patriarchal reality. It’s still the same thing that artists are facing today.”