When art historians analyze Japanese paintings of tigers, they tend to say, “This tiger looks mere a cat, failed to become a tiger.” –What does it mean?
Tigers are not native to the islands of Japan–they have been inhibiting in China for thousands of years. Little wonder why tigers have been frequently depicted in Chinese art from the ancient times. Since Chinese art has always been very influential to Japanese society from the begging of the nation, it was natural to have a big demand for tiger paintings in Japan. Especially, Samurai warriors in the Medieval and Modern period (roughly 14C to 19C) loved artifacts that depicted tigers. Tigers, for them, was a symbol of strength, which they highly valued.
Responding to the demand, many Japanese painters studied the tiger paintings produced in China. However, painters in Japan have never seen a real tiger before. There is not a single tiger in Japan, and nobody dared to import that fierce animal from abroad. (As a fact, some monks and painters studied abroad in China, but I have never read about painters tried to see real tigers there. Maybe it was too dangerous to try out.) Painters modeled cats, instead, as the closest alternative of tigers they had. This is why, compared to Chinese tiger paintings, tigers in Japanese paintings look cuter and stiff, more look like “mere a cat, failed to become a tiger.”
Maruyama Ōkyo (丸山 応挙), 1777, Minneapolis Institute of Art, public domain
The first Japanese painter who is known for depicting realistic tigers is Maruyama Ōkyo [丸山応挙] (1733-1795). He was the earliest master who valued sketching from the life. (Prior to him, copying from past masters was more valued than the life drawing in Japan.) Although Ōkyo still did not have an access to the real living tigers, he acquired a full body skin of a tiger and measured all proportions out of it. As a result, People at the time found Ōkyo’s tiger looked scarier, more realistic, and more full-of-life than any other tigers painted before.
After Ōkyo passed away, one of his disciples, Ganku (岸駒) became to known as one of the big Japanese realism painters. Besides getting a tiger’s skin, Ganku acquired four legs of taxidermied tigers and a scall of a tiger. Ganku examined them closely; he counted the numbers of fangs, the numbers of knuckles in the legs, and all those anatomic details, which Ōkyo could not find out. His close study of tiger’s body enabled Ganku to paint the most realistic tiger than anybody before him in Japanese history. In fact, he is still known as the greatest tiger painter in Japanese art history.
What researchers point out, however, is the limitation that Ganku faced while he painted tigers–which is most obvious in the eyes of Ganku’s tigers. The eyes of Ganku’s tigers are closer to what the ones that cats’ have, not those of tigers. Eyeballs were something painters could never paint realistically unless they had an access to the real alive animal.
Ganku was so successful and skilled as a painter, which lead him to start his own painting school called Kishi ha (岸派). This school lasted until the end of the 19th century. The fourth and the last leader of this school, Kishi Chikudō (岸竹堂), interestingly, had a strong association with tigers as well. He is known as the first Japanese painter, who sketched from the real living tigers.Chikudō saw a real tiger for the first time when a circus visited Kyoto from a foreign country. He was shocked. Real tigers looked aloof from what he had known of from the past masters’ paintings. He became obsessed with painting tigers–the real tigers he saw at the circus. One source says that he almost became mentally ill, seeing hallucinations of tigers from his own painting that he was working on. He was maybe haunted by the beauty and ferocious of real living tigers. His painting of tigers was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893 and received a blonde prize.
detail from Tigers by Mountain Streams [right of a pair], Kishi Chikudō (岸 竹堂), 1892-1895, Minneapolis Institute of Art, public domain
A century after Ōkyo, Chikudō draw realistic tigers, which did not look like cats at all anymore.