Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s favorite early subject was the cow. He later recollected that “he felt very near to the cow” because he “was born, judging by the Japanese calendar, in a ‘cow year.’” He must have been especially pleased to have been invited by his patron Hamilton Easter Field to study and paint at the summer art colony of Ogunquit, Maine, surrounded by coastal farms. There he “usually . . . [began] with a cow”; not surprisingly, then, Cows in Pasture is one of about 60 such pictures he painted in the 1920s.
The composition’s compressed space and the cows’ large scale and flat profiles reflect Kuniyoshi’s fondness for American folk art, an interest he shared with other members of the Ogunquit colony. The painting’s disjunctive perspective and sharp geometries also suggest the artist’s interest in avant-garde European art, such as that of Paul Cézanne, following the 1913 Armory Show. Curiously, these two traditions shared a tendency toward broad planes of color and dramatic asymmetry with the Japanese art that Kuniyoshi had known in his youth.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s early paintings, prints, and drawings feature odd, humorous, and even disconcerting subjects: frightened-looking babies with animals and anthropomorphic vegetation, for example.
This entry is a revised version of text that was originally published in Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, ed. Sarah Cash (Washington, DC, 2011).
“Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Development: Interesting Gathering of His Work Shown at the Daniel Gallery,” New York Sun, Feb. 1928, Yasuo Kuniyoshi Papers, reel D176, frame 296, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Kuniyoshi’s favorite early subject was the cow; the artist estimated he painted some 60 cow pictures during the mid-1920s.
Lloyd Goodrich, Yasuo Kuniyoshi Retrospective Exhibition (New York, 1948), 13. A woodblock print of a kneeling heifer was emblazoned on the cover of Kuniyoshi’s first solo exhibition catalog, Paintings and Drawings by Yasuo Kuniyoshi (New York, ).
I wasn’t trying to be funny but everyone thought I was. I was painting cows and cows at that time because somehow I felt very near to the cow. . . . You see, I was born, judging by the Japanese calendar, in a “cow year.” According to legend I believed my fate to be guided, more or less, by the bovine kingdom.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “East to West,” Magazine of Art (Feb. 1940): 75–77.
Kuniyoshi’s association with a bovine guardian spirit prompts an autobiographical interpretation of Cows in Pasture. The young artist was enjoying a spell of good fortune at this time. He had been given his first solo exhibition in 1922 at the Daniel Gallery in New York, having recently found a patron in the respected painter, critic, and teacher Hamilton Easter Field. In 1919, Field invited Kuniyoshi to attend classes at his art colony in Ogunquit, Maine, a coastal village about 70 miles north of Boston, where Kuniyoshi married Katherine Schmidt, a classmate at the Art Students League.
Kuniyoshi cultivated his infatuation with the cow in Ogunquit. As he wrote to his friend the artist Reginald Marsh in 1922: “Things round here very quiet at present and . . . just [suits] . . . us[.] [W]e started working . . . last week and as usually [here] I begin with a cow[.]”
Kuniyoshi to Marsh, June 14, 1922, Reginald Marsh Papers, reel D308, frame 38, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Autobiographical Notes,” Aug. 24, 1944, typescript, Kuniyoshi Papers, unmicrofilmed, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
“Show at Whitney Studio Galleries, ‘Early American Art,’” New York Herald, Feb. 17, 1924.
The large scale and flat profiles of Kuniyoshi’s cattle in Cows in Pasture recall the kinds of folk art the Ogunquit artists admired, especially 18th- and 19th-century livestock portraits commissioned by proud farmers
Cows in Pasture, though, does not merely mimic a naïve style. Rather, the painting testifies to Kuniyoshi’s attempt to reconcile a complex set of artistic traditions, cultural influences, and personal symbols. The disjunctive scale, peculiar geometries, unstable perspective, and oversize animal characters are reminiscent of recent developments in avant-garde European art. Following the 1913 Armory Show, Kuniyoshi admitted that he “tried . . . radical kind[s] of painting without understanding [and] imitated [the] worst side of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin.”
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Autobiographical Notes,” August 24, 1944, typescript, Kuniyoshi Papers, unmicrofilmed, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. See also Kuniyoshi, “East to West,” Magazine of Art (Feb. 1940): 74.
Although Kuniyoshi claimed he “hadn’t been influenced by him at all,” his totemic bovines recall Marc Chagall’s whimsical folkloric imagery. Cows in Pasture also brings to mind the simplified geometric style, intense palette, and zoological subjects of Franz Marc’s symbolic paintings; Kuniyoshi admitted he was “greatly influenced by the German expressionist group,” of which Marc would be considered a member. Lloyd Goodrich, “Notes on Conversation with Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” Whitney Museum Papers, reel N670, frame 82, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Lloyd Goodrich, “Notes on Conversation with Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” Whitney Museum Papers, reel N670, frame 68, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. On Kuniyoshi’s incorporation of his Japanese heritage into his work, see Gail Levin, “Between Two Worlds: Folk Culture, Identity, and the American Art of Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” Archives of American Art Journal 43, nos. 3–4 (2003): 2–17.
Kuniyoshi’s artistic circle saw evidence of modernism’s native roots in the formal similarities between European modernism and American folk art and colonial art.
Doreen Bolger, “Hamilton Easter Field and His Contribution to American Modernism,” American Art Journal 20, no. 2 (1988): 94.
Henry McBride, “Robust Art of Yasuo Kuniyoshi,” New York Herald, Jan. 3, , clipping, Kuniyoshi Papers, reel D176, frame 167, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Kuniyoshi eventually abandoned the barnyard subjects and what critics saw as the “mischievous humor” of his earlier paintings.
“The World of Art,” New York Times Book Review, Jan. 15, 1923.
“Art in Review: Kuniyoshi, in New One-Man Exhibit at Downtown Gallery, Shows Considerable Progress,” New York Times, Feb. 8, 1933.
Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi, interview, in Tom Wolf, “The War Years,” in Yasuo Kuniyoshi (New York, 1986), n.p. See also ShiPu Wang, “Japan against Japan: U.S. Propaganda and Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Identity Crisis,” American Art 22, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 28–51.
Kuniyoshi to Biddle, draft, Dec. 11, 1941, Kuniyoshi Papers, unmicrofilmed, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Autobiographical Notes,” Aug. 24, 1944, typescript, Kuniyoshi Papers, unmicrofilmed, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Attitude towards Nature; Statement for Ray Berther’s [Bethers’s] Book, How Paintings Happen [published, New York, 1951],” Kuniyoshi Papers, unmicrofilmed, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
September 29, 2016
lower center right: Y.Kuniyoshi 23
The artist; consigned to (Downtown Gallery, New York); sold c. 1926 to George Biddle [1885-1973], Croton-on-Hudson, New York; gift 23 June 1964, subject to life estate, to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washingon; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Exhibition of American Art, Galerie de la Chambre Syndicale des Beaux-Arts (under the Auspices of Art Patrons of America), Paris, 5 June - 5 July 1924, no. 103, repro.
- Exhibition of "Modern" Pictures Representing Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Expressionist, and Cubist Painters, Union League Club, 8-10 April 1924, no. 21.
- Yasuo Kuniyoshi Retrospective Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 27 March - 9 May 1948, no. 14.
- The American Genius, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 24 January - 4 April 1976, catalogue without checklist.
- The American Landscape Tradition, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 31 January - 31 August 1978, unpublished checklist.
- Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, 7 September - 1 October 1978, no. 2.
- Animals in American Art: 1880s-1990s, Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Roslyn, New York, 4 October 1981 - 17 January 1982, no. 93.
- Japanese Artists Who Studied in the USA and the American Scene, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 24 July - 11 November 1982, no. 3, repro.
- Henri's Circle, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 April - 16 June 1985, unnumbered checklist.
- The Shores of a Dream: Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Early Work in America, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, 7 September 1996 - 30 March 1997, catalogue with no checklist, repro.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 27 August 2005 - 29 April 2007, checklist no. 82.
- Asian/American/Modern Art. Shifting Currents. 1900-1970, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The Noguchi Museum, Long Island City, 25 October 2008 - 23 August 2009, no. 6, repro.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1 March - 27 July 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- F. W. "American Art in Paris [exh. review]." Arts 6, no. 2 (August 1924): 107, repro.
- Cheney, Martha Smathers Chandler. Modern Art in America. New York, 1939: pl. 13.
- Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1973: 2:142, repro., 143.
- Zafran, Eric M. "Kuniyoshi Retrospective." Bulletin of the Chrysler Museum of Art 7, no. 9 (September 1978): n.p.
- Kuniyoshi, Yasuo, and Yoshio Ozawa. Yasuo Kuniyoshi: Neo, Amerikan, atisuto no kiseki. Okayama, Japan, 1991: n.p.
- Cash, Sarah, and Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 180, repro.
- Bennett, Lennie. "The Coming of Age of American Art [exh. review]." St. Petersburg Times (18 February 2007): 8L.
- Greenhalgh, Adam. "Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Cows in Pasture." Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 9, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 15-21.
- Greenhalgh, Adam. "Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Cows in Pasture." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 232-233, 281, repro.
The painting is executed on a plain-weave, medium-weight, pre-primed canvas and is lined with a similar weight linen using a wax adhesive. The tacking margins are intact, indicating that the painting is very close to its original dimensions. The stretcher is a modern five-member, expansion bolt replacement. The commercially prepared ground is a grayish off-white.
In general, the paint has been applied as a thin, fluid paste that builds up the composition in a series of multiple layers. Delicate, flickering touches of a small brush are visible in many areas. Although the paint is mostly opaque, in some places, for example the red barn in the upper center, it is sufficiently thin and transparent that the glow of the light-colored ground is visible through the red paint. In some of the rocks and foliage the paint is applied more freely and thickly, with noticeable brushmarks and dabs of low impasto. There are a few places (as in the haystack at left and above and to the right of the red cow) where the artist appears to have deliberately abraded previously applied paint with a knife or other sharp tool and then continued painting.
In reflected light a large design element is visible that is now completely painted out. It appears to be a triangular shape surmounted by an oval in and above the area of the black cow. In infrared examination the painting appears to follow a dark outline probably made with a pencil.
The infrared examination was conducted using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a J astronomy filter.
Lance Mayer prepared a comprehensive technical summary for Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, ed. Sarah Cash (Washington, DC, 2011). A copy of this summary is also available in NGA conservation files.