Usumi Kihō 内海輝邦 (b. 1873)

The Raven and the Peacock
Item number: T-3370R
Size: H 68.9" x W 136.2" (175 x 346 cm)

Pair of six-panel folding screens
Ink, mineral colors, gofun, gold, silver, 
lacquer and silver leaf on paper

Signature: Kihō 輝邦, Seal: Hiroaki 廣精

The artist presents the viewer with a remarkable composition of a raven and a peacock in conversation across two large six-panel screens. The positioning of the two birds at first startles through the strong contrasts: the smaller jet-black raven on the right and the large proud peacock with its full show of polychrome feathers on the left.

What exactly was the intent of the artist in this striking juxtaposition? He may have intended to show the animals as an episode from Aesop’s fable, the story of the crow and the peacock. The narrative, however, remains unclear: did the covetous crow attempt to steal a feather and dropped it, discovered by the angry peacock? Or is the peacock bragging, showing off its rich display, while the raven is looking on in envy? Although the message is uncertain, the dramatic dialogue is clear. A key aspect of this dialogue is of course the contrast between the large colorful bird and the seemingly—until examined closer—drab black bird.

The screen is remarkable for another reason, its tour-de-force display of materials and techniques. Usumi painted the silver-leaf surface with luxurious materials, including gold, silver, lacquer and ground malachite, lapis lazuli and gofun. The peacock is composed with a densely inter-woven texture of feathers imbedded with thick layers of gold and mineral colors, including malachite and lapis lazuli. The bright eye is painted with gold, the beak with silver, and the head and body are molded with relief details using gofun. The drab-looking raven is in fact sumptuously created, with its black feathers covered with powders of lapis lazuli, its legs highlighted in lacquer, and its eyes with gold. The face of the raven is finely modeled with masterfully modulated ink wash on its beak, giving a three-dimensional effect. The heavy use of expensive mineral colors indicates that Usumi made the screen pair for an important occasion, possibly a national art exhibition.

Usumi Kihō was a skilled painter of great promise. He was born in Matsue in Shimane Prefecture by the Japan Sea in 1873 and managed to gain acceptance to the highly competitive Tokyo Art School, presently the Tokyo University of the Arts, at a key time in its history. The university had been founded a few years earlier and was run by the great artist Hashimoto Gahō 橋本雅邦 (1835 –1908). Kihō became a student of Gahō1 and learned in the company of a select group of the future great artists of Japan. A list of his fellow students at the time reads like a who’s who of the great Taishō and Shōwa period artists: Yokoyama Taikan 横山大観, Shimomura Kanzan 下村寒山, Hishida Shunsō 菱田春草, Kawai Gyokudō 川合玉堂, among others.

During his years at the Tokyo Art School Kihō created three works that were thought important enough to store at the university museum.2 Upon graduation in 1893, Kihō accepted a position at the Fukushima Middle School in Fukushima Prefecture, teaching art. Among his colleagues at the school was the great scholar Tsunoda Ryūsaku 角田柳作 (1877 –1964), who eventually became known as the "father of Japanese studies" at Columbia University3 During their time there together (Ryūsaku taught at the school 1903 – 8), the two collaborated on projects.

We see traces of Usumi’s activities through the 1910s and 1920s of the Taishō period, when he moved back to Tokyo and became an established artist in the capital city.4 The present work stems from his period of activity in Tokyo.

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