In the Galleries: Interpretations of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Boy with Cow

Brown, black & green painting with angular forms of a boy on a dirt road holding a large brown cow to the left on a rope leash. 2 small houses & a black body of water are behind
Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Boy with Cow, 1921. Oil on canvas. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra. Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.1

In summer 2023, supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art’s Collection-in-Residence Program, Colby College Museum of Art student interns developed wall labels for Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Boy with Cow. The cohort worked with art historian ShiPu Wang and included Favour Ajibade, Emma Baker, Abhishek Bhaskar Sherigar, Lydia Burke, Sam Dev, Olga Lisabet, and Abisa Osei-Amankwah.

An expert on the artist, Wang led a Reading Lab during which, as the lab’s organizer Sarah Humphreville, Lunder Curator of American Art, notes, the interns were asked to “conduct research, draft wall labels, and engage in a thorough editing process that included peer review and collaboration with the curatorial, engagement, and publications departments.” The result was a diverse collection of interpretive texts, exemplifying the expansive possibilities of art research and analysis. The final labels are currently on display with the Kuniyoshi painting in the Lunder Wing and are also shared here.

 


 

In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of US artists developed an appreciation for folk art, among them a group who summered at artist, collector, and teacher Hamilton Easter Field’s art colony in Ogunquit, Maine. Many of these participants—including Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who spent summers in the late 1910s and early 1920s at the colony—viewed the simplicity of the folk art in Field’s collection as evidence of a uniquely American character. Some began collecting folk art themselves and making new works inspired by it. One news reporter in 1924 wrote, “Most of the summer colony in Maine last year went mad on the subject of American primitives, and…the Kuniyoshis stripped all the cupboards bare of primitives in the Maine antique shops.” The large-scale, flat profile and oddly human eyes of the bovine in Boy with Cow recall eighteenth- and nineteenth-century livestock portraits that were commissioned by proud farmers and later collected by folk art enthusiasts.

—Favour Ajibade ’24, Museum Development Intern

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During Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s early career, his art teachers—and later, reviewers and critics—frequently attempted to explain his art by referencing his Japanese heritage. Japanese woodblock prints, characterized by flat layers of color, had become widely available and popular in Europe during the nineteenth century, influencing and inspiring many of the continent’s painters; accordingly, many made facile associations between Kuniyoshi and Japanese art styles. However, Kuniyoshi never studied art in Japan and was deeply immersed in the New York art scene. For him, Cubism, an early-twentieth-century artistic movement that emphasized geometric shapes and angles, was a much more visible influence on his rendering of forms. The flattened perspective at the forefront of critics’ descriptions is contrasted by a depth that comes from the layering of paint in Boy with Cow: areas of white, especially, create halos of light that appear to emanate from inside the painting.

—Emma Baker ’24, Barringer Museum Practice Intern

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Japanese-born artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi immigrated to the West Coast of the United States at age seventeen, in 1906. After three years in Los Angeles, he moved to New York, studying and later teaching at the Art Students League of New York. There he met his first wife, Katherine Schmidt, and many other lifelong associates, and found his place in the city’s avant-garde art scene. Many of these artists also congregated at the Whitney Studio, an exhibition space founded in 1914 dedicated to emerging American artists that eventually became the Whitney Museum of American Art. From the late 1910s to 1924, Kuniyoshi spent his summers in Maine at the Ogunquit artist colony, and these experiences are reflected in this agrarian scene. The artist once remarked: “That severe landscape and simple New England buildings were my God.” Boy with Cow is of particular note because it was included in his 1948 retrospective exhibition—the first ever featuring a living artist—at the Whitney Museum.

—Abhishek Bhaskar Sherigar ’25, Linde Family Foundation Campus and Community Collaboration Intern

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Beginning in the late 1910s, Yasuo Kuniyoshi spent his summers in Ogunquit, Maine, at the invitation of artist and collector Hamilton Easter Field, who operated an art colony there. These trips sparked Kuniyoshi’s admiration for the state as a subject. He returned numerous times to seek inspiration. Boy with Cow portrays one of the iconic farms that dot Maine’s landscape. As a storm encroaches, a boy leads a cow inside, where it will be sheltered. The boy’s bulky arms imply a life of field labor, and a nostalgia for rural life before agricultural mechanization. Indeed, no tractor or farm equipment is visible, an omission that shows the rudimentary nature of the boy’s work, and his fortitude. Farming practices were shifting dramatically in the 1920s, the decade when tractors were introduced for widespread use for tasks previously performed by human and animal labor.

—Lydia Burke ’24, Howard A. and Gisele B. Miller Curatorial Intern

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Born in Okayama, Japan, and educated in the United States, where he spent most of his life, Yasuo Kuniyoshi sought to “combine the rich traditions of the East with my accumulative experiences of the West,” as is evident in Boy with Cow. The abstract style, playful figures, and vibrant colors reflect US modernist art styles of the 1920s, when the work was made, yet neither the foreground nor the background of the three-dimensional space is clearly defined, as is typical in traditional Japanese printmaking. Created during his artistic breakout moment, during which Kuniyoshi was spending his summers in Hamilton Easter Field’s artist colony in Ogunquit, Maine, Boy with Cow depicts a farmer boy leading a cow to shelter as a storm looms. Kuniyoshi credited the simple, geometric forms of Maine’s colonial architecture, the state’s rugged and rocky coastal landscapes, and its flora and fauna as the inspiration for this piece and many more.

—Sam Dev ’25, Education and Engagement Intern

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Yasuo Kuniyoshi once remarked, “I believed my fate to be guided, more or less, by the bovine kingdom.” The artist was born in the year of the cow, and these animals appear in many of his early works. He also had a great fondness for US folk art. In the late 1910s he spent his first of many summers in rural Ogunquit, Maine, where he encountered numerous cows that he depicted in his art, sometimes reimagined from the perspective of the Japanese folklore he had been exposed to growing up (one such story is “The Meadowlark Cowherd,” in which a boy is turned into a bird for failing to give water to cows and horses). Boy with Cow thus combines a traditional American farm setting with classic Japanese literature.

—Olga Lisabet ’26, Black Family Curatorial Intern

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Yasuo Kuniyoshi emigrated alone from Japan to the United States as a teenager in 1906 to avoid serving in the Japanese military. His first job upon arrival was in a railroad yard, in Spokane, Washington, where he saw fellow Japanese immigrants living in tents. By the next year, he had earned enough money to move to Los Angeles, where a high school teacher suggested he study art. From then on, art became his focus. His work, with and without his permission, was often met with conversation of identity and seen through a racial lens that emphasized what was perceived to be his Japanese identity. However, through it all, Kuniyoshi regarded himself as an American artist, though he remained aware that his Japanese origins greatly influenced his artistic methods. His unique style drew on US folk art, European modernism, and Japanese design and iconography. By integrating these disparate influences, Boy with Cow visualizes aspects of Kuniyoshi’s journey through immigration, art, and self-identity.

—Abisa Osei-Amankwah ’26, Linde Family Foundation School and Teacher Programs Intern