Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Four Cats In Different Poses

by Michael
(London, UK)

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Four Cats In Different Poses is a painting that is, for me, all about the famous Japanese bobtail cat. Kuniyoshi Utagawa (歌川国芳) lived between 1798 and 1861. He was one of the masters of the Japanese ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and painting and belonged to the Utagawa school.

This is a good era to discuss any cat breed because it is before the recognised cat fancy and it taps in to the long history of this cat breed before photographs of cats were seen. What interests me is the appearance of the cat in these paintings compared to the appearance currently.

At the time of this painting the Japanese bobtail had been in knowUkiyo-e-woodblock-painting

n existence for some 800 years. I have discussed the history on the Japanese bobtail page.

I am sure that the cats in the painting below are both bicolor and tricolor. I have marked one of the tricolor cats with red connecting lines to show what I think is the same area of color. The cats in the top right hand corner and bottom left hand corner of the picture are bicolor Japanese bobtail cats. The other tricolor is top left. The bicolor and tricolor were and remain the favorite types of coat for this breed in Japan.

japanese bobtail old and new comparison-2


Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Four Cats In Different Poses (above)


I think the pictures make a nice comparison and the only real difference between the old and modern Japanese bobtail is that the old one is much more cobby (stocky) if the depiction is reasonably accurate. The modern breed standard states in my words that..:

If the body conformation is “cobby” (like a Persian or a Manx cat for example) then the cat will be penalized in competition.

I would suggest that the cats depicted by Kuniyoshi Utagawa in this painting Four Cats In Different Poses, would all be penalised in competition and not win a thing in the show ring today.

It seems as if the modern breeding program has gone for a more โ€œforeignโ€ (slender) appearance (see Cat Body Types) and drifted away from the original appearance. The modern Japanese bobtail should be long, lean and elegant with no cobbiness according to the CFA breed standard. If I am correct and I am speculating, the cat fancy in the USA has refined this cat breed to make it more delicate looking (refined looking if you like) and attractive by modern standards. This is in line with what has happened to the Siamese cat and indeed other breeds (see Siamese cat history). The Persian went in the other direction becoming excessively rounded including a very flat face (see Persian cats).

beckoning cat One last thing. The cat that is bottom right of the painting is waving the classic welcome with the palm of the paw outwards. This is the welcoming cat beckoning – the Maneki Neko (“Beckoning Cat”). The beckoning cat is placed outside shops etc. to bring good luck.

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Four Cats In Different Poses — The pictures of the painting is in the public domain due to lapse of time (uploaded by user: Petrusbarbygere) and the picture of the woodblock is reproduced under a Wikimedia Commons license. Picture of beckoning cats: Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic creative commons license.

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Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Four Cats In Different Poses

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Aug 22, 2011 Kuniyoshi cats styles
by: Marianne

I suggest that one reviews Kuniyoshi’s famous of Cats that is a parody of Hiroshige’s “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” The cats depicted in this are of varying types… long and lean, short and cobby. Also, remember the cats he used for his models were his well fed pets. Japanese cats today still are found in a variety of body shapes. The early breeders chose a type to breed that would easily distinguish them from the Manx (Tailless)Cat, already accepted in cat registries. Nevertheless, breeder of Japanese Bobtails still import them today to keep a healthy genepool.

Oct 24, 2009 Oldest cat breed
by: Michael

Hi Finn, yes it must be one of the oldest cat breeds. I think the Chartreux is another old breed but allegedly less old. Siamese cats too have a long history in Siam (Thailand) before being imported.

I can imagine bobtailed bicolor cats wandering around urban Japan 1000 years ago. And it seems plausible to suppose that they bred them deliberately then to in order to cultivate the favoured coat pattern and type.

If that was the case it would make the cat fancy 1000 years old!

I think the sumo cat is a slight exaggeration but I do sense that the original Japanese bobtail was a heavier cat.

Oct 24, 2009 One of the very oldest
by: Finn Frode, Denmark

A wonderful picture – thanks. The big male at top right looks a bit like a Sumo wrestler… ๐Ÿ˜‰
Looking at the upright ears I’d say it is definitely the same cat as the modern breed. And it must have been bred deliberately in order to retain characteristics like bobtail and the favourite coat type. This seems to make it one of the very oldest cat breeds, doesn’t it?

2 thoughts on “Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Four Cats In Different Poses”

  1. I found it interesting that at least a couple of those cats (in the ukiyo-e print) were depicted as having five or even six toes on a single paw! I have no idea whether that’s allowed in the modern Japanese Bobtail breed standard, or whether it’s common among Japanese cats in general, whether registered purebreds or not…

    Also, I think there was too much stylization in the ukiyo-e style for us to be able to draw any definite conclusions, ~200 years later, about what features bobtailed cats in Japan had back then. (Look at some other ukiyo-e prints from the same period, especially ones depicting humans or other animals… there’s a degree of realism, but also a lot of stylization.) It’s even possible that at the time “Four Cats in Different Poses” was created, the favored coat pattern didn’t yet exist — maybe it was originally just an ideal, and cats were selected as pets (and/or intentionally selectively bred) that looked more and more like that ideal, similar to the development of several modern breeds such as the Toyger?

    In any case, Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s art is beautiful and adorable, and clearly shows that, like all good, right-thinking people, he was a cat lover! Wikipedia has good-quality images of a few more of his prints that featured cats.

    • I agree the paintings are stylised but of course they still provide insights about the Japanese Bobtail 200 years ago. At the time there were no formal cat breeds so all cats were moggies technically although they were more purebred than modern purebreds probably.

      The pattern is very similar to the modern American show cat in the picture. Of course there must be, and have been, many Japanese Bobtails that were not tricolor or bicolor. The tricolor just looks the best and makes the best subject matter.

      As to toe numbers. There are five at the front. If he painted 6 perhaps some were polydactyl or he just did not bother to get it accurate. As you say they are stylised. I’ll have a look at Wikipedia. I might do another page on the subject. I find that paintings of cats from hundreds of years ago are interesting from the standpoint of cat history.


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