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19th-Century Japanese Woodblock Prints Imagine Cats in Place of Humans

Cats in Woodblock Prints

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Cats Suggested as The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō,” 1850 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)
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Cats been companions to people for centuries, but they've also served as creative muses for countless artists across the world. In Japan, felines have held particular importance ever since they arrived in the 6th century by way of Buddhist monks from China. Their popularity became so widespread that by the mid-1800s, kitties were frequently depicted in ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints. Artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861) was especially fond of cats and created a variety of illustrations where felines are the stars.

Originally from Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Kuniyoshi displayed artistic talent from an early age and apprenticed with a well-known ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Toyokuni. Eventually, he embarked on his own and adopted the name “Kuniyoshi.” His prints of warriors, which were inspired by folktales and mythology, solidified him as one of the masters of the art form. In the 1840s, however, new laws were introduced that censored what could be portrayed in art. It was during this time that Kuniyoshi began incorporating cats into his printmaking, circumventing the strict requirements.

Calicos, tuxedo cats, and tabbies were portrayed in the same manner as human figures. Kuniyoshi combined his realistic observations with a whimsical aesthetic, producing prints where cats were arranged to resemble the kanji of different types of fish, in his series Neko no ateji. Another well-known piece replicated Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō with dozens of kitties. The book Cats in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Woodblock Prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi celebrates the artist's feline-inspired oeuvre. Compromising 204 pages, this tankobon-style book explores the way in which Funiyoshi captured cats in his later years.

You can purchase Cats in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Woodblock Prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi at Bookshop.

For centuries, cats have been a muse for artists around the world.

Cats in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Series of Proverbs,” 1852 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

A book entitled Cats in Ukiyo-e: Japanese Woodblock Prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi highlights the tradition of cats in Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e.

Cats in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Cats forming the characters for catfish,” c. 1841–1843 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

h/t: [Open Culture]

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Margherita Cole

Margherita Cole is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and illustrator based in Southern California. She holds a BA in Art History with a minor in Studio Art from Wofford College, and an MA in Illustration: Authorial Practice from Falmouth University in the UK. She wrote and illustrated an instructional art book about how to draw cartoons titled 'Cartooning Made Easy: Circle, Triangle, Square' that was published by Walter Foster in 2022.
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