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Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942) 神坂雪佳

Momotaro “Peach Boy” ca. 1933

Hanging scroll ink and color on silk
102.5 x 36.0 cm. (40 3/8 x 14 1/4 in.)

“Painted by Sekka.”

Artist’s seal:

Colophon on box:
“Painting of Momotaro, painted by Sekka.” Seal: Sekka

Recent provenance:
A kimono dealer, one of Sekka’s patrons

Kyoto Shoin: Kamasaka Sekka, 1981, pl. 42;
Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art and the Birmingham Museum of Art: Kamisaka Sekka, Rimpa
Master—Pioneer of Modern Design, 2003, cat. 217.

(see write up below)

A young man wearing armor beneath his kimono sits on a rock holding a folding fan, his two swords identifying him as a samurai. To his right are a dog and a monkey, both dressed in more casual yukata. The rock is washed with very decorative blue-green colors, and the cliff immediately behind was skillfully defined by a graded ink wash. The strong visual impact of the colorful group and the simple but very effective design identify the artist as a late member of the Rimpa School.

By the end of the 19th century earlier variants of the story of Momotaro, “The Peach Boy,” had yielded to the one that is now more-or-less standard. Momotaro was introduced to this world from within a giant peach floating down a river where an old, childless woman was washing clothes. The woman and her husband opened the peach in order to eat it but instead discovered the child, who explained that he had been sent by Heaven to be their son. The couple named him Momotaro, from momo (“peach”) and taro (“eldest son.”)

Years later, when grown big and strong, Momotaro was asked to rid Onigashima (“Demon Island”) of the oni, “demons/devils” who lived there, taking with him some delicious millet dumplings, known as kibi-dango, prepared by his mother. En route Momotaro was joined by a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant, each of whom was given a dumpling in return for their assistance in defeating the devils. On reaching Demon Island the companions found the gate locked, but the pheasant few inside and grabbed a key with which to unlock the gate and allow the others to enter. Once inside they fought the demons, the pheasant pecking at their eyes, the dog biting their legs, and the monkey jumping on their backs. When the demons finally cried for mercy, they gave Momotaro all their treasure which he carried back to his village in triumph.

Momotaro has always been closely associated with the area of Okayama, with Onigashima sometimes identified as Megijima Island, located in the Seto Inland Sea near Takamatsu. Kibi- dango dumplings are found only in Okayama, a region also famous for its peaches. The city boasts a Momotaro Street, there is a statue of Momotaro in front of the train station, and each year the city hosts a Momotaro Festival.
During World War II the image of Momotaro w as used in propaganda, with the popular figure representing the government, the animals the people, and the United States the land of demons, with Pearl Harbor the obvious choice for Onigashima, the main point being that victory could be achieved only if the citizens assisted their government. The treasures earned by Momotaro could easily be equated with the glory that would accrue to the government on their victory.

Kamisaka Yoshitaka, called Sekka, was born in Kyoto, the eldest of six sons born to a samurai who served at the Imperial Palace.1 In 1881, at age fifteen, Sekka began to study painting with Suzuki Zuigen, an artist of the Shijo School who had been a disciple of Shiokawa Bunrin (1808-1877) and Okamoto Toyohiko (1773-1814). Since Zuigen was very well-known at the time, having been one of fifty artists who painted before audiences at the Second Kyoto Exposition in 1868, Sekka came to know many prominent figures in Kyoto art circles.

In 1887, in Tokyo, Sekka met Shingawa Yajiro, who worked at the Noshomu Ministry, charged with encouraging the development of Japan’s agriculture, commercial and mining industries, and in that connection had been sent to Germany in 1885 to study the arts and crafts. The decorative arts were of great interest to Yajiro, who in Europe may well have come across such books as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament (1856), William Goodyear’s Grammar of Lotus, and Franz S. Myer’s Handbook of Ornaments (1883). Yajiro’s interest in the arts was not for their aesthetic value alone but equally or even more so for their economic potential as exports. Sekka was strongly impressed by Yajiro’s theories and seems to have been set on a new life-course by his encounter with Yajiro.

Returning to Kyoto Sekka applied himself to the study of design and learned the production methods of various decorative arts from Kishi Kokei (1840-1922), a designer, curator of the Imperial Household Collection, and a serious collector of Rimpa art. Sekka commenced his independent activities in 1893, by helping to organize the Ashi-de-e Association, a group named after a special pictorial style of calligraphy in which auspicious elements were incorporated as motifs in painting or in the decoration of utensils. In January of 1894 the group, which included the painters Sakakibara Bunsui (d. 1890), Kikuchi Hobun (1862-1918), and Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942) among others, held their first exhibition in Gion, and in June the association held a second exhibition at the Kyoto Municipal Art School, a show in which Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924) also participated.

In 1893 Sekka joined Kaneko Kinji and Imaizumi Yusaku in judging a competition sponsored by the Kyoto Shikko-kai (Kyoto Lacquer ware Association) and was appointed to a responsible position in the Kyoto-shi Kogei Zuyan Choseisho (Kyoto Municipal Decorative Arts Design Institute). Other indications of Sekka’s growing reputation include the award of a certificate of merit by the Nippon Shikki Maki-e Kyoshin-kai (Japanese Association for the Development of Lacquer and Metal-sprinkled Lacquerwares) for his contribution to the decorative arts, and his appointment in 1898 as editor of the periodical Kyoto Bijutsu Kyokai (Kyoto Art Association).

In 1900 Sekka designed lacquer shelves for the English Royal family and the following year he was send by the Japanese government to Glasgow to observe an international exhibition being held there and also to study European ornamental design. Some influence of Art Nouveau style can seen in Sekka’s work done immediately after his return home in 1902, one example being a fan-shaped painting designed for display along with the contributions of many other famous Kyoto painters on the ceiling of the Miyawaki Baisen-an, the house of a furniture-store owner named Miyazaki. Other examples from this period include paintings Sekka did on the walls of the Okazaki Shrine in Kyoto.

During the early decades of the 20th century Sekka’s activities expanded even further to include association with such potters as Miyanaga Tozan (1868-1941), Ito Tozan (1846-1920), and Shimizu Rokubei, the designing of interior decorations for ships (the Taiyo-maru and Chiyo-maru), the layout of gardens (the Chikuzan Rinsen in 1906), and, increasingly, the creation of pictorial designs for block-printed books and paintings. In 1903 alone Sekka produced Kairo (“Sea Route”), Kokkei Zuan (Humorous Designs”), and the two-volume Cho Senshu (“One Thousand Varieties of Butterflies”), and these were followed in 1909-10 by one of his master works, the three-volume Momoyogusa (“World of Things”).2

Already in 1900 Sekka had been appointed a part-time design instructor at the Kyoto Shiritsu Bijutsu Kogei Gakko (Kyoto Municipal School of Fine Arts and Crafts) and from 1905 until 1925 he served as a regular faculty member of this important institution, the forerunner of the present Kyoto Shiritsu Geidai Daigaku (Kyoto College of Fine Arts). Perhaps in emulation of the Tak a-ga-mine ar t village organized by Koetsu (1558-1637), Sekka in 1909 founded the Kabikai (later renamed the Katobi-kai and then Katobi-mura) in order to encourage artists to cultivate their specialties in a communal village just as farmers gained from mutual association and assistance in producing their crops. This organization evolved into the Kyoto Bijutsu Kogei In, called Biko-in in abbreviated form, and played a leading role in the development of the art-crafts in Kyoto. Sekka also participated in the Kongi Yogu Kenkyu-kai (Marriage Instruments Study Association) organized by the Miyazaki Furniture Shop and made a study of antique mirrors. In 1913 Takashimaya Department Store organized a Hyakusen-kai (Association of the Select One- hundred) and Sekka also served as judge in the Exhibition of Applied Designs sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, a name changed in 1918 to Kogei Tenran-kai (Exhibition of Art-crafts); Sekka continued to serve as judge in this important exhibition until 1922, and he was also a founding member of the Koetsu-kai.

From 1913 onward Sekka created lacquer- ware designs for use on objects to be presented during imperial visits to Kyoto; he also designed embroidery and woven decorations for the dining room of the imperial train and executed pictorial handscrolls in gold and silver pigments as well. In 1925 Sekka was honored by the French government, being granted a medal of the fourth class, and in 1933 received a commission from the Prince of Fushimi no Miya for a pair of screens. In 1934 Sekka contributed a fan painting to the 10th Memorial Exhibition celebrating the opening of the Osaka branch of the Miyazaki Furniture Shop, and the following year Sekka became counselor to the new Kyoto Shitsugei Kai (Kyoto Lacquer Craft Association).

Following the death of his brother Yukichi, Sekka resigned his position and retired to Sagano where he still associated with a limited number of artists and artisans, teaching some of them and continuing to produce his own works. By summer of 1940 his health was failing and he died in early January of the year 1942 at the age of seventy-six. Sekka was buried in the Daiun-in, at Teramachi Shijo, and two years later, in 1944, during the height of the war, the Kyoto Municipal Museum staged an exhibition of the works of this greatly talented, productive, and influential artist.


1. See Audrey Yoshiko Seo: “Kamisaka Sekka: Master of Japanese Design,” Orientations, December, 1992, pp. 38-44; see also the excellent catalogue of Sekka’s work, Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art and the Birmingham Museum of Art: Kamisaka Sekka, Rimpa Master—Pioneer of Modern Design, 2003.

2. See Kaikodo Journal XIX, Spring, 2001, cat. 47.

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