Kuniyoshi, 24 Paragons of Filial Piety - Taishun Tending the Fields Assisted by Elephants

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) 24 Paragons of Filial Piety: Taishun Tending the Fields Assisted by Elephants, 1840. Oban yoko-e.

This print is from the 1840 collection 24 Paragons of Filial Piety. The series is very collectible and fairly rare, perhaps on account of the unusual western influence in the drawing for such an early print. The print of Taishun is the first of the series and the most striking. Elephants were not seen in Edo Japan and Kuniyoshi’s drawing of them would have relied on other sources than life.

The 24 Paragons is an old Chinese collection of stories written by the scholar Guo Jujing and recounts twenty-four acts of kindness by sons and daughters. In this case the virtuous Emperor Yao was seeking an heir to his kingdom and was told about a young man who was terribly abused by his stepmother’s family yet continued to tend the fields tirelessly and singlehandedly. He is assisted in this by the elephants and the birds:

The elephants come down from the mountains to plough the furrows for this young man; in the Spring you can see them line up and use their tusks to dig the earth. In the Summer the crows and magpies flock down to pull up the weeds with their beaks. Nature itself approves of his righteous attitude, especially in the face of hardship, as in the case of his impossible family situation.

The Emperor was so moved by the story that he granted the kingdom to the young man.

The print shows the elephants and the birds assisting on the land. It is a striking and famous image and highly regarded; note also the western style of drawing of Taishun. The print is very delicately modelled and shaded with fine bokashi (shading). The landscape owes a debt to Kuniyoshi’s colleague Hiroshige.

This is a fine impression of the same edition as the British Museum (London) copy. The colour is very good and the condition is good albeit with some slight damage to the right hand edge. The print is mounted on Japanese album paper, remains of a centrefold just visible.

Signed Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi ga. Published by Wakasaya Yoichi.

This print appears on p. 109 of Kuniyoshi: The Warrior Prints by BW Robinson.