The Inspiring Story of Uemura Shōen

The Japanese artist who proved that women could paint professionally

By Google Arts & Culture

Late Autumn (Showa period, dated 1943) by Uemura ShoenOsaka City Museum of Fine Arts

The trailblazing Japanese painter Uemura Shōen was born shortly after Japan’s Edo period ended, a time during which women who could paint were considered cultured and greatly admired – as long as they did it behind closed doors. When an upper-class woman married, she would take a konrei chōdo (bridal furnishing set) to her new marital home that would often include brushes and painting supplies; she could paint freely (in private) or in front of friends, but it would be nothing beyond a hobby. The only way a woman could advance her skills beyond that was if she had an artistic family member who could train her in her own home, as was the case with the renowned female painter Kiyohara Yukinobu.

Daughter Miyuki (1914) by Uemura ShoenAdachi Museum of Art

Shōen (born Uemura Tsune) was one of the first women to start changing this mentality and went on to become one of Japan’s most renowned female artists, reaching a level of recognition that was previously unheard of when she became the first woman to receive the esteemed Order of Culture award. At the time when Shōen was raised, it was unusual for a woman to become a professional painter because no women would ever receive professional training at an established school. However opportunities for women had begun to increase – an 1858 record shows that there were 80 women painters active in Japan – and Shōen was lucky enough to grow up in a supportive household. She was born in Shimogyo, Kyoto two months after the death of her father, and was raised by her mother and her aunts. Her mother ran a tea shop and Shōen would sit in the corner drawing while she tended to customers (the artist’s earliest fans).

Woman Waiting for the Moon to Rise (1944) by Uemura ShoenAdachi Museum of Art

An ambitious woman herself, Shōen’s mother supported her daughter's decision to pursue a career in painting and sent her to the Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was 12. Here she began studying under the Chinese-style landscape painter Suzuki Shōnen, who rewarded her talents by giving her the first kanji (Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system) of his pseudonym (Shō) to use in hers. He also let her pursue figure painting, even though this wasn’t permitted by the school until the later years of training.

Jo-no-Mai (Dance Performed in Noh-Play) (1936/1936) by Shoen UemuraShohaku Art Museum

Shōen’s admiration for ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock print, influenced her style as she developed new techniques and drew a range of subjects. She became most famous for her paintings of female figures, known as bijin-ga. Traditionally bijin-ga paintings were of courtesans but in a more modern interpretation of the genre, Shōen chose to celebrate ordinary woman as opposed to the idealized entertainers. Shōen’s women were often portrayed in private domestic moments, or dressed up in their finery to go out, although the artist received criticism for painting women that resembled porcelain dolls, instead of real women's flesh and blood.

Firefly (1913) by Uemura ShōenYamatane Museum of Art

Another consistent theme in her work was incorporating elements from tradition Noh narratives, a major form of classical Japanese musical drama. Her work Jo-no-mai is named for the dance performed in the introduction of a Noh play. Female roles in Noh performances were often played by men, but Shōen used women to recreate these roles for her paintings.

Sound of Tsuzumi (1940/1940) by Shoen UemuraShohaku Art Museum

Much of her work consisted of a large central figure painted against an empty background with realistic detail, neat lines, and a calm use of color, which would be carefully coordinated so that the clothes and features would stand out.

Large Snowflakes (1944) by Uemura ShoenAdachi Museum of Art

At 15, Shōen became a celebrity in the art world when her painting, The Beauty of Four Seasons, was purchased by the Duke of Connaught, the son of Queen Victoria, who was visiting Japan. The resulting boost in her reputation meant that she began winning commissions from private patrons. Soon after, the Japanese government selected her, along with some other prominent artists to have her work shown at the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893, however Shōen was the youngest and one of the only ones not from the far more advanced Tokyo art scene. Shōen won her first award in 1898 for a work she has selected to be displayed in the "Shinko Bijutsu Tenrankai" (Exhibition of New and Old Art) in Kyoto. Her first national award, in 1900, was for a painting she submitted to an exhibition sponsored by the Japan Fine Arts Academy.

Yangguifei (1922/1922) by Shoen UemuraShohaku Art Museum

In 1941, Shōen was invited to join the Imperial Art Academy, making her the first woman member. She was hired as the Imperial Household’s official artist, only the second woman to hold this position, the other being Shohin Noguchi in 1904. When World War II began, Shōen started using her position to demonstrate her nationalism, creating images that depict strong women, unaffected by the war, going about their daily chores. She also traveled to the war zone in China, despite being in her 60s, to help rally the troops.

Young Ladies (1926/1926) by Shoen UemuraShohaku Art Museum

Shōen led what was seen as an unconventional life; not only did she work as a painter, but she also never married, had a child out of wedlock, and raised him as a single mother. She broke boundaries, worked relentlessly, and accomplished some incredible firsts, possessing the same quiet but determined will of the women she depicted in her paintings. She made a major contribution to modern art in Japan and paved the way for future women artists. She died in 1949, a year after becoming the first woman to win the Order of Culture, proving that painting could be far more than a hobby.

Making a Wish for a Long Life on Chrysanthemums (1939) by Uemura ShoenTokyo Fuji Art Museum

See more of her work here.

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