Huis in aanbouw, Kawahara Keiga,1823-1829

Blogpost 002: Kawahara Keiga - documenting Japan’s nature and culture

For a better understanding of the folding screen’s origins, it helps to know a bit about its painter, Kawahara Keiga (1786 – c.1860)

Keiga was skilled in both Japanese and Western painting techniques. This combination of skills allowed him  to capture the sweeping panorama of the bay of Nagasaki on the large format of this screen, that’s four-and-a-half metres wide. But Keiga’s significance doesn’t rest solely with this folding screen...

Over the course of his career, he created hundreds of paintings and drawings with the nature and culture of Japan as subject.[i] The National Museum of World Cultures keeps more than 500 works by Keiga and his studio in its collection. The great variety in Keiga’s oeuvre provides a unique insight into early nineteenth century Japan. 

The painter of Deshima

Over the course of his career, he created hundreds of paintings and drawings with the nature and culture of Japan as subject.[i] The National Museum of World Cultures keeps more than 500 works by Keiga and his studio in its collection. The great variety in Keiga’s oeuvre provides a unique insight into early nineteenth century Japan.

House under construction, attributed to Kawahara Keiga, c. 1823-1829, inv. no. RV-1-4239
House under construction, attributed to Kawahara Keiga, c. 1823-1829, inv. no. RV-1-4239

Deshima

In 1811, an important opportunity presented itself to Keiga, when the Nagasaki authorities appointed him as the designated painter for Deshima’s  inhabitants. The appointment meant he gained the the rare privilege of free access to the otherwise locked-down Dutch trading post. As designated ‘Painter of Deshima’ Keiga received most of his commissions from the German physician Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), who lived in Japan between 1823 - 1829. Von Siebold, an impassioned amateur naturalist, used his stay to research and document  Japan’s flora and fauna. To that end he also needed accurate illustrations, which he asked Keiga to supply. Through these commissions Keiga also met the draftsman Carl Hubert de Villeneuve (1800-1874, resident in Deshima 1825 - 1836).
It seems likely that Keiga picked up new Western artistic techniques from him, such as creating a perspective with a vanishing point outside the composition.

Besides perspective drawing, Keiga learned additional skills to depict plants and animals with even greater accuracy. The two men also often ended up working together on the same botanical drawings; Keiga in ink, De Villeneuve in pencil.
In 1826, Keiga gained the unique opportunity of accompanying Siebold on a court journey to the capital Edo, now called Tokyo. This arduous journey of some 2400 kilometres (1500 miles) took over three months, travelling partly by boat but mostly on foot. During this journey Keiga documented a wide array of extraordinary locations and scenes. Few Europeans -- but also few Japanese -- had ever had the opportunity to see this much of the country. 

Mount Fuji as seen during the court journey, Kawahara Keiga, c. 1826-1827, inv. no. RV-1-4488-29
Mount Fuji as seen during the court journey, Kawahara Keiga, c. 1826-1827, inv. no. RV-1-4488-29

Espionage?

But the journey had unforeseen consequences. In 1829 it led to Keiga becoming embroiled in a spy scandal, after a multitude of maps of Japan -- and the northern territories in particular -- were found in Von Siebold’s possession. Such maps constituted a form of sensitive (military) information which was not permitted to leave Japan under any circumstances. The Japanese authorities accused Keiga of not properly paying attention on the court journey, thereby contributing to the circumstances that allowed Von Siebold to acquire the maps. The German doctor was banned from  Japan for life, although this ban was eventually lifted in 1855. Keiga got away with a relatively light sentence of three months in prison. Other Japanese acquaintances of Von Siebold did not survive the scandal…

Flower and fruit of pomegranate, Jp. Zakuro, Kawahara Keiga, 1820s, inv. no. RV-360-958
Flower and fruit of pomegranate, Jp. Zakuro, Kawahara Keiga, 1820s, inv. no. RV-360-958

Ironically, Keiga’s skill in accurate and realistic depictions also meant the end of his career as ‘Painter of Deshima’. In 1842 the authorities of Nagasaki discovered that Keiga had been painting the family crests of samurai-clans on the various patrol boats as they appeared in the bay of Nagasaki. Again, this was considered sensitive military information. For this violation Keiga was banished from Nagasaki and Edo. Nonetheless, just four years after the banishment, we find that Keiga worked on a ceiling painting in a Buddhist temple a short distance from Nagasaki.
Apparently he was still able to receive commissions in the vicinity of his hometown. More importantly, he was still able to work for Japanese clients. His last dated work is from 1860. This painting is a portrait – another one of his strengths – of an elderly lady named Kiku. Alongside his signature he also recorded the date and his (advanced) age, so enabling us to calculate the year he was born.


1. Information contained in this article is based on: K. Vos and M. Forrer (1987), Kawahara Keiga: Fotograaf zonder Camera (Leiden: Museum Volkenkunde), the site: 
‘Visual Encyclopedia: Japan in the Edo Period as Witnessed by Keiga Kawahara, and supplemented with our own research.
2. This work is now in the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. On this website a large collection of Keiga’s works is available for viewing. 
Panorama of the bay of Nagasaki (detail), with Deshima on the right, Kawahara Keiga, 1820s, inv. no. RV-360-7891
Panorama of the bay of Nagasaki (detail), with Deshima on the right, Kawahara Keiga, 1820s, inv. no. RV-360-7891