In 1878, an obscure Japanese artist named Watanabe Seitei went to a Paris dinner party and drew two birds in old-school kachōga style for the legendary painter Degas. 20 years later, Seitei was designing amazing avant garde woodcuts.
Whilst these woodcut prints (below) by Watanabe Seitei for the art magazine, Bijutsu Sekai (The World of Art) seem surprisingly simple and contemporary, the artist’s background is complex and ancient.
In 1851 when the artist now known as Watanabe Shōtei (AKA Watanabe Seitei) was born he was named Yoshikawa Yoshimata and Tokyo didn’t yet exist. Tokyo was then a city called Edo and samurai still walked its streets. He descended from a family of rice brokers and was apprenticed to a pawn shop at the age of 12. He was fired for spending too much of his time painting. At 14 he defied his fathers wishes and began his first studies as an artist under the tutellage of Kikuchi Yōsai (1788–1878) the son of a samurai named Kawahara of Edo. Yōsai was known for doing exhaustive amounts of historical and even archaeological research on his subjects before embarking on the monochrome portraits of historical figures and heroes he was famous for. Seven years later he’d adopted the go (pan name) of Seitei and was adopted by Watanabe Koshi, a poet and friend of his father, who was also poet as well as being a rice broker. Instead of following his teacher into historical painting, Seitei became one of the best and most popular exponents of kachōga (bird and flower paintings).
Seitei was in Paris at a time when Japonisme, a vogue for Japanese arts of all kinds was at it’s zenith. In 1878 Seitei was invited to a dinner party held at the home of the art critic and early “Japonophile” Philippe Burty (1830-90), the man that coined the term Japonisme. After dinner, Burty had arranged for a demonstration of Japanese painting and the painter Edgar Degas was amongst the guests who watched Seitei in action. First, Seitei decorated a silk kakemono (a hanging scroll) which was offered to Burty as the host. Then Degas, an avid Japonist who collected Japanese fans watched as Seitei demonstrated how traditional Japanese fans were painted. It was here, and from Seitei, that Degas learnt the staining, dripping and blurring techniques he would go on to use in his famous Japonese fan shaped paintings that featured his signature ballet dancers. Seitei also made a traditional kachōga watercolour for each guest.
Degas recieved an image of two birds on a thin branch that ran delicately and diagonally across the paper from one corner to the other. Degas made Seitei a drawing as a gift in return but tore it to pieces claiming he could not match the beauty of Seitei’s work.
A bridge between an ancient culture and the ultra modern art of the 19th century, Seitei’s work would successfully & progressively blend Western realism with the delicate colours and washes of the Kikuchi Yōsai school. In Europe, Seitei was a key figure at the heart of Japonisme in France and the trailblazer of a new approach to traditional kachōga style bird and flower painting.
During his career Seitei received many awards, in expositions in and out of Japan. He became a teacher and a major inspiration and influence to the generation of Nihonga artists that followed him.
Yoshikawa Yoshimata AKA Watanabe Shōtei AKA Watanabe Seitei 渡辺 省亭 died at 67, in Japan in 1918.
After the death of Degas in 1917, that drawing Seitei gave to the legendary French artist at Burty’s dinner party was found amongst his effects and became part of his estate. He’d kept it for 40 years.