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Acceptance and Reinterpretation: Western painting in East Asia in the early 20th century

Nude Painting in modern Asia

Morning Toilette<br /><span>朝妝</span>

Kuroda Seiki, Morning Toilette, 1893.

Le femme nue de M. Kuroda

Georges Bigot, Illustration of the Morning Toilett's exhibition, 1895. 

Wisdom-Impression-Sentiment<br /><strong>智・感・情</strong>

Kuroda Seiki, Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment, 1897-1899.

A Half-naked Woman<br />半裸女像

Li Shutong, A Half-naked Woman, 1920.

News of Kim Kwan-ho

News about Kim Kwanho's graduation in Maeilsinho, 1916.

Sunset<br />해질녘

Kim Kwanho, Sunset, 1916.

Nude<br />裸体婦人像

Kuroda Seiki, Nude, 1901.

Lake<br />호수

Kim Kwanho, Lake, 1923.



Nude painting had not been common in Asia for a long time, and exhibiting nude paintings in public was regarded obscene. After taking charge of Western painting department, Kuroda Seiki introduced drawing nude with real models into regular curriculum, and it was the first time among Asian countries to draw a nude model. Kuroda thought painting nude is important for art, and we can see his belief in the letter Kuroda sent to his father in 1890.

"There is a tendency that presenting an idea by describing human body here [France]. As seen my teachers' paintings [Raphael Collins and Chavanne], he draws a naked female lying on the grass with holding a leaf in her mouth with the title Spring, or draws many females picking flowers in the garden with the title Summer. These paintings are difficult to paint without good skills."[1]

Kuroda was impressive by his teacher's nude paintings and practiced himself. Kuroda Seiki's Morning Toilette was created during the end of Kuroda's life in France. Morning Toilette was accepted in Salon Nationale de Beaux-Arts in 1893, and submitted for the Fourth National Industrial Exhibition in Kyoto. In the painting, a European woman (presumably French) stands naked before a full-length mirror, fixing her hair into chignon. The big-size canvas is presenting a life-size naked female body, the doubling of her body in the room and the mirror reinforces the prominence of her nudity. [2]  Unfortunately, the piece disappeared during the Second World War, but Kumamoto Kenjiro, a biographer of Kuroda described the original colored version as below.

"This painting depicts a young woman, just awakened, standing before a large mirror in the nude, combing her hair [...] A chair is placed on the left, and a deep blue bear skin spreads under her feet. The body is colored with a light flesh color, tinged with pale shadows of blues and purples. The hands, legs, and ears are shaded only in light red. In contrast, the body reflected in the mirror is delineated in bluish-green paint."[3]

Morning Toilette created a huge sensation in Japan because this was the first nude painting to be publicly exhibitied in Japan which was regarded as a harm to the society.[4] Many artists and critics criticized Kuroda's work.

Kuroda was upset about criticism toward nude painting, and sent a letter to his friend Kume Keiichiro (久米 桂一郎, 1886-1934).

"It is very interesting that my nude painting causes heated debates. Policemen came and saw the painting in uproar. They might say something today or tomorrow. If exhibiting nude painting is not allowed, it means not to study on appearance of human for Japanese, so I have to think about this problem seriously. I don't know how the president of the board will reach a verdict, but if they prohibit the exhibition, I will resign. Regarding nude painting as pornography will not be acceptable upon any consideration. There is no reason to believe nude painting as bad thing for future of Japanese art. It is not bad but necessary. It should be promoted. We cannot become artistic nation if we merely draw boneless doll. The logic of opponents of this painting is due to unfamiliar."[5]

Kuroda believed nude painting is imperative for Japanese art, so he kept drawing nude paintings. Kuroda's triptych series Wisdom, ImpressionSentiment was created in efforts to present ideal ratio of human body, and acted as a model for many Asian artists.

Like Kuroda, Li Shutong also painted nudes, although very rare. Li Shutong's A Half-naked Woman was possessed by Chinese writer Ye Shengtao (叶圣陶, 1894-1988) and disclosed to the public in 1960s. Li Shutong did not paint nude painting in his late years, and this is his one of rare nude painting. Although there is no accurate information about Li's A Half-naked Woman, many studies said this work was first exposed in the magazine Art Education (Meiyu) in 1920.[6] Although Li was the first artist who studied Western painting in China, his oil painting works are rarely existed. After becoming Buddhist monk, he mostly focused on traditional and calligraphic works. Regardless, we can see how he accepted Western painting and nude painting through this piece which was created after Li studied under Kuroda's class with impressionist style.

Go Hui-dong did not paint nude paintings during his lifetime, but Kim Kwan-ho who graduated from Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1916 with the highest honors of his class created nude paintings, and it is worthy to examine. Daily News (Maeil sinbo) spotlighted Kims news as follow. 

"Mr. Kim from Pyeongyang had the honor of the best student among Tokyo School of Fine Arts. The graduation piece is Sunset, which is prominence, and exhibited at graduation ceremonial hall."[7]

Kim Kwanho's Sunset was the best graduation work which depicts two female taking a bath in a river. Well-organized composition and description of human bodies are definitely affected by Kuroda Seiki. Also, the painting employs Plein-air style. Kim was cornerstone of Korean modern art, and his Sunset was the first nude painting in Korean modern art history.

Kim submitted Lake for Joseon Art Exhibition in 1923, seven years after returning to Korea. Lake contains many common grounds as Kuroda Seiki's Nude as to its composition and style. That might be because the most of judges of Joseon Art Exhibition were from Tokyo School of Fine Arts, and Kim thought it was better to submit the painting that were fit for their standard. However, Kim's figure is different from Kuroda's figure in a way that the figure in the painting depicts an Asian woman rather than a Westerner. Even though the figure does not have ideal ratio of her body as Kuroda perceived, she is painted animately with Kim's unique perspective.

It is very important to note that the first nude in oil painting style in China and Korea were created by former students in Tokyo School of Fine Arts, and they were definitely influenced by Kuroda Seiki's education and style. 

[1] Kuroda Seiki (黒田精輝), Diary of Kuroda Seiki (黒田精輝の日記 第1券), 東京:中央公論美術出版, 1966, pp. 166-167.(


[2] Tseng, Alice Y. "Kuroda Seiki's "Morning Toilette" on Exhibition in Modern Kyoto." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 90 (3), 2008.


[3] Kumamoto Kenjiro, Masterpieces of the World (Sekai meiga zenshu) vol. 4, Kuroda Kiyoteru, Aoki Shigery, Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1962.

[4] Tseng, Alice Y. "Kuroda Seiki's "Morning Toilette" on Exhibition in Modern Kyoto." The Art Bulletin, Vol. 90 (3), 2008.

[5] Tokyo University Asian Culture Research Center (東京大学東洋文化研究所), The Future of Painting (繪畫の将来), 中央公論美術出版, 1977, pp. 273-274

[6] Wang, Hengsheng and Li, Yaochen and Xu, yan, "Rediscover of Li Shutong's "A Half Naked Woman" and its research (Li Shutong Banlanvxiang de chongxin faxian yu xiangguan yanjiu)", Meiyuxuekan, 2013.

[7] Daily News (Maeil sinbo), March 31, 1916. 


Nude Painting in modern Asia