Creatures Great and Small: Animals in Japanese Art
February 27–August 30, 2015
Gallery 225


The depiction of animals in Japanese art has a long and fascinating history. Among the most frequently represented are the twelve zodiac animals of China, Korea, and Japan: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. These and other animals have enlivened paintings in screen and scroll formats, woodblock prints, clothing and textiles, as well as all kinds of decorative arts. In Japan and elsewhere in East Asia, both real and mythological animals can have special significance. Some even serve as auspicious symbols in daily life or during festive occasions.

The twelve horses that grace the pair of 17th-century folding screens are emblematic of the Japanese warrior class (samurai). Fine steeds were status symbols, and the daily care of horses and horseback combat were important activities. The carp attempting to scale a waterfall in Maruyama Ōkyo's 1795 painting is derived from the Chinese artistic repertoire. It is the visual embodiment of "ascending the Dragon Gate" whereby a carp would be transformed into a dragon, symbolizing a scholar who passes the civil service examinations and attains high office.

Following the beginning of Japan's modernization in 1868, artists were able to travel abroad and absorb foreign traditions of painting animals. Takeuchi Seihō's Lion and Tiger were painted in 1901, as soon as he returned to Japan from a trip to Europe, where he closely observed live animals in municipal zoos. Konoshima Ōkoku's early 20th-century illustration of a Japanese raccoon dog (tanuki) shows the influence of the Chinese ink-painting tradition, but also a certain Western sensibility that informed the Nihonga school of modern Japanese painting.

Creatures Great and Small: Animals in Japanese Art is curated by Philip Hu, associate curator-in-charge of Asian art.