Dwarf Potted Trees in Paintings, Scrolls
and Woodblock Prints

JAPAN -- Meiji & Taisho Eras

(1869 to 1912)

Meiji Portrayals

The Work:      Kabuki Actors is an 1876 triptych with five actors portrayed.  Near the lower right edge of the right-most panel, a small/medium pine tree is in what appears to be a white cloth-draped dark wooden bucket.  A red lobster rests against the brown trunk and green pine needle bunches.  The lobster was a symbol of old age because of its crooked back.

The Artist:     Toyohara Kunichika. 1


The Work:      An oban entitled "I want it to bloom early" from Mitate tai zukushi series (A Collection of Desires, 12/1877-1/1878), published by Inoue Shigehei.  A woman peddler bundled up in winter stands in front of her two trays of plants, including a dwarf potted tree.
    Some of the other titles in the series include "I Really Want to Go to Sleep," "I Want to Go Abroad," "I Want to Become Beautiful," "I Want to Wash My Hands," and "Wanting to See."

The Artist:      Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), widely recognized as the last great master of Ukiyo-e, he is additionally regarded as one of the form's greatest innovators.  Taiso was his go from 1873 on.  By the end of his career, Yoshitoshi was in an almost single-handed struggle against time and technology.  As he worked on in the old manner, Japan was adopting Western mass reproduction methods like photography and lithography.  Nonetheless, in a Japan that was turning away from its own past, he almost singlehandedly managed to push the traditional Japanese woodblock print to a new level, before it effectively died with him. 2

The Work:      "The seated woman in this print is posing for her photograph and entirely new and wholly Western intervention in the cultural life of Japan.  The very fact that she is seated in a Western-style chair is new enough but the small vignette image at the top clearly tells the story.  Positioned on a table in the background is a a stunning flowering Bonsai and a good case could be made that this is a variety of Chrysanthemum, not uncommon in Bonsai culture at this time."

The Artist:      Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 3

The Work:      From a series of beautiful women, Shinryu nijushi toki, 1880, an old curving-trunked tree in a wide-lipped deep pot, aqua with white dragon design.  The leaves are of two colors -- possibly we are seeing the darker top of some and lighter undersides of others.  The plant resembles a rose.  The upper background is reddish and, from this copy, it is difficult to tell whether or not there are a few small reddish flowers on top.  A black-spotted white cat is laying in front of the pot and a woman with open kimono is tying her obi (sash) to the front and right of the tree.

The Artist:      Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 4

The Work:      Kifujin No Tashinami   ( Contributor's Taste ?)   A tryptych of six noblewomen has two bonsai towards the left side.  The first bonsai is a tall and thin neagari style pine (?) in a shallow blue oval pinched-neck pot with three feet.  To the right of this, and now in the middle section of the tryptych, is a shallow blue rectangular pot with white corner feet holding what appears to be a cave rock.  Longer vertical, the oval stone with the large opening has a distinct apex as well as a wider base.  Behind it in the same container is perhaps an accessory plant.

The Artist:      Toshu Shogetsu (fl. 1889) 5


The Work:      Meeting for Peace Negotiations is a triptych showing the Japanese on the left separated from the Chinese on the right by the negotiating table at Shunpanro Restaurant, April 1895.  A large tray landscape in the center panel sits on the rear edge of the large red cloth-covered table.  A gray barked pine (equivalent to a meter high?) is shown with rocks and iris-like-leaved flowers in a broad tray which might have been only 1 cm deep.  (Perhaps the landscape is resting on something to the right of the main table.)  This is said to be the better of two versions done of the subject by the artist.

The Artist:      Kiyochika (b. Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1847-1915) was an independent from Edo who was influenced by imported lithographs and etchings, and thus turned to woodblock printing.  He had a considerable success, particularly between 1876 and 1881, but after that the style in which he worked lost its popularity.  He was also a book, magazine and newspaper illustrator.  His prints contained views of contemporary Tokyo as it changed under the impact of Western influence. 6


The Work:      First Month: The Sleeping Dragon Plum at Kameido is a triptych from Views of the Famous Places of Tokyo, c.February 1896.  The sharp lines and areas of solid color characteristic of the Ukiyo-e tradition are gone, and the print has become virtually a replication of Japanese-style painting.  In the lower right corner of the right-most panel, a young Japanese girl and her European-garbed father are viewing two bonsai under a covered porch.  On a low raised stand in a pale blue bowl is a red-berried plum tree.  On a mat in a slightly larger pot at the print's edge is larger plum.  The background scene is of plum-blossom viewing at Plum Estate (Umeyashiki) in Kameido in eastern Tokyo.  Some forty other people, in mixed culture clothing/warm winter dress, are milling around or are at low mat-covered tables not far from a lake's edge.

The Subject:     The Sleeping Dragon Plum, a tree right of the triptych's center, is surrounded by a low fence and marked with a plaque.  It was the single most famous tree in Tokyo.  The ancient plum was known for the habit of sending roots into the ground from its descending branches, which would then rise in turn as new shoots, giving an overall contour of a reclining dragon.  The tree was badly damaged by a great flood in 1910.  It survived until the 1920s.

The Artist:      Kiyochika. 7


The Work:     An untitled painting dated to 1890 is located over the doorway of the Inn Mantei in the Gion quarter of Kyoto.  The silk background has turned brown with age and the black ink is smudged and misty.  This work shows a double-trunk pine in a low rectangular pot, some utensils nearby, and large leaf, and a poem inscribed in the upper right.  The similarity between the two trees planted side by side might be faulted as too much sameness in height, trunk size, and even to the number of branches.  But the lines in the trunks and branches have been combined into a beautiful linear arrangement. 

The Artist:     Tessai (b. Tomioka Hyakuren, 1837-1924) was one of the most renowned artists in Japanese history.  He painted in the so-called "Literary Men's Style," employed by Chinese artists of the Tang dynasty.  Occasionally he even included Chinese poems in his own paintings.  But he was not a slavish copier of the soft and shaded Chinese style of painting, the artists of which he admired both for their manner of painting and their lofty ideas.  He shared with them their love of untouched nature represented often by very free brush strokes for which Tessai became famous.
     At first he trained to be a Shinto priest, and he eventually became high priest at the important Otori Shrine near Osaka.  In the meantime, he had started a successful school of painting.  He also helped by actually working on the restoration of some old shrines and temples.
     In his youth the artist met the aged nun Otagaki Rengetsu, a poetess who made pottery on which she inscribed her poems.  Tessai was entrusted to deliver these pots to the nun's parishioners.  From this he learned pottery making, which he practiced to some extent throughout his life, poetry and the joy of giving.  In later years, when his paintings on fans or scrolls were in great demand, he continued to give them away, as he had done for years, rather than sell them.
     When his brother died, Tessai returned to Kyoto, his birthplace, and bought a small house in which he lived the rest of his days.  He never gave up his interest in religious philosophy and was always known as a scholar-artist.
     A master of ink painting ( sumi ), Tessai reduced details in his pictures to the essentials and thereby was able to create literally thousands of works, ranging in size from small sketches to large scrolls.  In his lifetime he also made many long journeys, mostly on foot, throughout the islands of his homeland.
     Even before his death, numerous forgeries of his paintings were put on the market.  This was a kind of tribute, perhaps, but also a great annoyance to him.  8


The Work:      A Pleasant Life in a Gourd (1923) is noted here because it is a late depiction of a very early theme in this history.

The Artist:      Tessai.  9


The Work:      A work in the Akawa-ma series from 1896 published by Fukuda Hatsujiro.  A woman in a kimono bearing a boat on water pattern looks down to her left at a bonsai resting on a short orange table. The tree(s), container and table are only partially shown at the woodblock print's right edge.   The ornate round, wide, blue-and-white pot contains a stone with at least two different types of trees.  There is a pine and some type of flowering deciduous plant.

The Artist:      Yoshua Chikanobu (1838-1912), born in Niigata Prefecture as Hashimoto Tadayoshia, was trained in Kano School painting  and then was a student of Utagawa Kuniyoshi and later of Toyohara Kunichika, who gave him his artist's name.  He began producing designs in the classic manner of the woodcut masters around 1870, concentrating upon both portrayals of beautiful women and scenes from Japanese legend and folklore.  He made his artistic reputation in the 1880's with triptychs illustrating political events of the Meiji period, depictions of the Imperial family, contemporary warfare, the pleasures of the noble courts, scenes from the Noh theatre, and customs and manners of a changing Japan.  His later art (particularly those woodcuts relating to the theatre) are remarkable for their bold design elements and beautiful printing techniques.  With the exception of Yoshitoshi, his style was perhaps more individualistic than any other Japanese woodcut artist of the times. 10


The Work:      "A characteristically stately Meiji Period interior depicting a woman at lunch from the series Sketches of Women's Ritual Ceremonies, as well as a Tokonoma in the background exhibiting the colossal branches and delicate blossoms of the sakura [cherry tree].  This image is the right-most panel of a well-known triptych."

The Artist:      Yoshua Chikanobu. 11


The Work:      "This striking print from the celebrated series, Eastern Customs: Enumerated Blessings, portrays the familiar pursuit of calligraphy by three elegantly attired women.  The center of the composition is a dramatic pine with rush grass and placed in a glazed blue and white porcelain pot.  Unusual to find that our modern dictate that pines be exhibited in unglazed pots has not yet evolved in Japanese Bonsai tradition."

The Artist:      Yoshua Chikanobu. 12


The Work:      "One of the charming aspects of woodblock prints is the romantic titles given their series by the artist to communicate the central theme of groups of picture from 10 to 100 images and more.  The name of this series is Praise for Multi-Colored Blossoms.  Though the sky outside the window indicates that it is snowing... confirmed by the framed vignette which depicts snow on the leaves of a bamboo, an ume or possibly anzu [Plum or Apricot] Bonsai tree provides a contrasting seasonal motif within this inviting interior."

The Artist:      Yoshua Chikanobu. 13


The Work:      "The landmark series entitled, Snow, Moon, Flowers is in [perhaps] the finest Meiji period print series ever produced.  [From] The Potted Trees, [t]his specific image presents the arrival of the winter guest."

The Artist:      Yoshua Chikanobu. 14


The Work:      Plum Bonsai.  A zig-zagging-trunked pink-blooming plum rises out of its tall blue-and-white pot with feet.  What appears to be a type of long-handled hand trowel rests just to the right diagonally at the base of that pot.  To the left and behind this pot is a shorter brown-and-white container holding what may be an adonis plant.  Each container has a wide lip.

The Artist:      Takahashi Katsutaro (January 1871, Asakusa section of Tokyo - April 1945, Hiroshima) aka Shotei (his go from 1907-22).  Starting at the age of nine, Takahashi studied Japanese-style painting with his uncle Matsumoto Fuko.  As a young man, Takahashi worked for the Imperial Household Department of Foreign Affairs copying ceremonial designs.  He also illustrated magazines, textbooks, and scientific articles.  In 1891, he organized the Japan Youth Painting Society with fellow artist Terazaki Kogyo.
       A turning point in Takahashi's career came in 1907, when he began to design woodblock prints as the first artist for the
Watanabe Shozaburo publishing company.  His early prints were signed 'Shotei', the art name he took around 1902.  Around 1921, Takahashi changed his artist's name to 'Hiroaki', occasionally using the name 'Komei'.  His prints have a great variety of seals and signatures, which sometimes makes identification difficult.  All his blocks -- some 500 -- under the go Shotei were destroyed during the great Kanto earthquake and ensuing in September 1923.  Over the following years, Takahashi continued to work for Watanabe, creating between 150 and 250 new designs.  These prints included a variety of greeting cards and small landscapes remarkably similar to his earlier designs, derived stylistically from ukiyo-e designs.  However, Takahashi did create many striking prints in a more modern style.
       Shin hanga literally means New Prints. It was an art movement for a new style of Japanese prints from about 1910 until ca. 1960. Shin hanga took the art of ukiyo-e to a new renaissance.  The shin hanga movement integrated Western elements without giving up the old values of Japanese, traditional woodblock prints.  Instead of blindly imitating Western art styles, the new movement concentrated on traditional subjects like landscapes, beautiful women and actor portraits.  Inspired by European Impressionism the artists introduced the effects of light and the expression of individual moods.  The result was a technically superb and compelling new style of Japanese prints.
       During the 1930's, Takahashi began working with Fusui Gabo, a lesser known Tokyo publisher.  It is speculated that this relationship allowed Takahashi more freedom, as Watanabe's business was limited by conservative Western tastes.  Perhaps because his designs vary so widely in their style and originality, Takahashi Shotei remains one of the most under-appreciated shin hanga artists. 15

Meiji Portrayals


1.      Seen by RJB at a vendor's display of woodblock prints at the February 1992 Phoenix Matsuri Festival; cf. the lobster and non-bonsai pine in Hokkei's Choko Chorei, c.1825, b&w fig. 126 on pg. 218 of Mirviss, Joan B.  The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono ; (New York: Weatherhill, Inc. and Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum; 1995).  The motif, to a less extent, can also be found in Hokkei's A Set for the Hanazona Group, early 1820s (Keyes, Surimono, Fig. 17 color, pg. 57, caption on pg. 56); Hokkei's New Year's Arrangement,  late 1810s (Mirviss, small b&w Fig. 99, pg. 209); or Hokusai's Woman with a New Year Arrangement, 1797 (Mirviss, small b&w Fig. 150, pg. 226). 

2.       Per personal e-mail to RJB from Daniel Dolan, Midwest Bonsai Society, 04 Nov 2009. From http://www.bonsaimuseum.org/e/tenji_t.html, accessed 08/26/2004, with the label "t011210_2.jpg". See also "Yoshitoshi -- Artelino," http://www.artelino.com/articles/yoshitoshi.asp ; "Tsukioka/Taiso Yoshitoshi," http://www.sinister-designs.com/graphicarts/yoshitoshi.html ; "Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka," http://www.castlefinearts.com/Japanese_fine_arts_woodblock_prints/Yoshitoshi_Biography.aspx ; and "Tsukioka Yoshitoshi - Complete List of Print Series Publication Cross-Reference (by date)" http://www.yoshitoshi.net/xref.html.

3.       From "Katsura Forest" by Daniel Dolan, http://www.katsuraforest.com/print12.htm.

4.       Yoshitoshi_yanagibashi.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoshitoshi.

5.      "Dr. Horace F. Clay & 'Walking Mangrove'," http://www.fukubonsai.com/5a9.html.  A small version is also to be found on pg. 15 of the January/February 2000 issue of Bonsai Magazine, BCI.

6.     Roberts, Laurance P.  A Dictionary of Japanese Artists (Tokyo: John Weatherhill, Inc.; 1976), pg. 85;

Peace Meeting from Allen Adler & Ruth Leserman Collection, #99, seen at Phoenix Art Museum, c.late 1980s; 

7.      First Month seen at Phoenix Art Museum, c.late 1980s;

Smith, Henry D. II  Kiyochika, Artist of Meiji Japan (Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Museum of Art; 1988);

cf. Du Cane, Florence  The Flowers and Gardens of Japan (London: Adam & Charles Black; 1908), pp. 112-113: 
     "One of the most famous and beautiful [plum orchards] is at Sugita, a charming little village nestling by the bluest waters near Yokohama, where a thousand trees have stood for upwards of a century, displaying their blossom every spring to admiring eyes from all the country round.  Here there are six special kinds of the tree, and their fancy names mark the different characters of the flowers, the Japanese being very clever at finding characteristic names for flowers and trees.  The Gwario Bai, or Recumbent Dragon Tree, is the most famous of these, being indeed the most notable thing in the outskirts of Tokyo.  Some fifty years ago [i.e., c.1858] there grew a wonderful tree of vast age and strange shape, its branches having ploughed up the ground and thrown out new roots in no fewer than fourteen places, thus naturally covering an extensive area.  The name of Gwario Bai was given to the tree by old Prince Rekko, who planted the groves in Tokiwa Park in 1837, a piece of forethought highly appreciated by many visitors to this day.  The Shogun (or Generalissimo) of that day also paid a visit to the spot, and made the tree Goyobaku or the Tree of Honourable Service, in return for which gracious act of condescension the fruit was presented to him every year.  All these honours, however, could not save it from a natural death when its time came; in its place now flourish a number of much less interesting trees, which nevertheless bear the same name, and apparently the same reputation, as their predecessor the Dragon of the Prime."
     The Reclining Dragon Plum (aka Garyubai) can also be seen in another piece by Hokkei from the early 1820s (Keyes, Surimono, small b&w Fig. 61, pg. 158).
     Japan, The Official Guide (Tokyo: Board of Tourist Industry, Japanese Government Railways; 1933, 1941), pg. 298, states that Kameido in eastern Tokyo is also noted for the large wisterias in the grounds of its Shinto shrine which dates from the seventeenth century.

8.     Index of Japanese Painters, compiled by the Society of Friends of Eastern Art ( Toyo Bijutsu Kokusai Kenkyukai ) (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company; 1940.  First Tuttle edition published 1958), pg. 120;

Moore, Lamont “Bonsai and the 47th Ronin,” Bonsai Journal, ABS, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1971, pp. 8-9, 18, b&w photo on pg. 8, which also contains the following:  The Inn Mantei is noteworthy because it was here that Oishi Yoshio in 1702 or 1703 visited, reveled, and squandered his money away.  This was to give the impression that he was a frivolous wastrel when actually he and his forty-six companions – the 47 Ronin -- were furiously plotting to avenge an insult to their master.  After completing their mission, they were forced to \ commit suicide.  More than two hundred and fifty years later, guests at the Inn were assembling as their forefathers had assembled on each anniversary of Yoshio's death to pay tribute to his memory.

9.     Stein, Rolf A. The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), Fig. 27, pg. 59.

10.       "Yoshu Chikanobu," http://www.artoftheprint.com/artistpages/chikanobu_yoshu_tavellerinthesnow.htm ; "Fine Chikanobu Triptych 'King Gusan', c.1880," http://www.antiqnet.com/detail,chikanobu-triptych-king,694539.html.

11.       From "Katsura Forest" by Daniel Dolan, http://www.katsuraforest.com/print02.htm.

12.       From "Katsura Forest" by Daniel Dolan, http://www.katsuraforest.com/print06.htm.

13.       From "Katsura Forest" by Daniel Dolan, http://www.katsuraforest.com/print13.htm; Kunio Kobayashi  Bonsai (PIE International; 2011), pg. 13 (image on pg. 12) gives title as Meiyoiro no Sakiwake Bishuro Komachi Nakanomachi Shimeko.

14.       From "Katsura Forest" by Daniel Dolan, http://www.katsuraforest.com/print15.htm.

15.       Per personal e-mail to RJB from Mark Kahn, 06 Apr 2006, image originally image originally from http://shotei.com/artists/shotei/shoteicatalog/shoteilist20.htm; first seen by RJB at Dalmatinski bonsai klub of Croatia site, http://www.bonsai.hr/uzgoj-razvoj.htm"; "The Jade Dragon," http://www.thejadedragon.net/JapaneseArts/prints/9584 ; "takahashi shotei," http://www.hanga.com/landscape/shotei ; "Shin Hanga," http://www.artelino.com/articles/shin_hanga.asp.

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