Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, also known as Fujita Tsuguharu or Foujita Tsuguharu, was a Japanese expatriate painter who applied French oil techniques to Japanese-style paintings. He was born in 1886 in Tokyo and graduated from what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts in 1910. Three years later, he went to Paris, where he became friends with many of the great forerunners of modern Western art, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani. He exhibited his works for the first time in Paris in 1917.
Foujita became known for his portraits, self-portraits, nudes, city scenes, and drawings and paintings of cats. He published the limited edition A Book of Cats (1930), which included 20 drawings of cats and became a highly sought-after art book. In 2014, this was estimated at $60-80,000 at Bonhams. He met a young woman named Lucie Badoud in 1921, and for the following decade, she lived as his muse, lover, and wife, inspiring some of the most sensual and striking paintings that the artist ever produced. Together, Badoud and Foujita were celebrities of the Montparnasse social scene, and their names continually graced contemporary gossip columns.
Foujita incorporated into his oeuvre two of the elements for which he is most celebrated: his motif of the nude figure and his ‘fond blanc,’ a specific white ground which he applied on canvases to give them a luminous quality. The latter technique was developed out of the artist’s desire to represent what he now considered the most beautiful of materials: human skin. Foujita had striven to perfect his fond blanc and reportedly never revealed the unique formula to anyone.
Another very important individual in the artist’s life and oeuvre was his cat named ‘Mike’ (meaning ‘Tabby cat’ in Japanese). This cat was adopted by the artist shortly after his arrival in Paris after following him home one day and refusing to leave his doorstep. The presence of a cat would go on to be a mainstay of Foujita’s works: sometimes as a companion to a figure, sometimes as the central subject itself. Foujita adored their individuality and recognized in them a certain unpredictability which he also attributed to women. He is noted as saying that cats were given to men such that they could learn from them the mysterious ways of women!
Fujita’s work is distinguished by his strong evocative line, an aesthetic that stemmed from his art training in Japan and was greatly admired by the Paris School artists. Fujita loved drawing and like his illustrious predecessor Hokusai, painted with great skill. Fujita’s drawing is incredibly assured, and his lines have an exemplary calligraphic finesse achieved through the use of sumi (Japanese black ink) on paper and oils. Color played a secondary role in his work but was used in such a decisive way that it enhances the drawing. The subtlety of the gouache and watercolor fills the forms with layers of flat color, creating subtle effects of transparency in his oils. His gold backgrounds strengthen the impression of refinement and preciousness.
During World War II in Japan, he was a war artist for the Japanese government, a decision that was criticized by his pacifist peers in the Japanese arts community, who accused him of using his art to promote the militarist actions of Japan. With a marred reputation in his home country, he went to the US in 1949, then back to France in 1950 for the rest of his life. He became a French citizen in 1955 and a Legion d’honneur in 1957.
From 7 March to 15 July 2018, the Musée Maillol in Paris presented an exhibition devoted to Foujita. More than a hundred major works, originating from public and private collections, show the exceptional nature of his period in Montparnasse, where his friends Modigliani, Zadkine, Indenbaum, Kisling, Pascin, and Van Dongen lived during the Roaring Twenties. The exhibition focused on the artist’s first and very productive Parisian period between 1913 and 1931.
In conclusion, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita was a Japanese expatriate painter who applied French oil techniques to Japanese-style paintings. He was known for his portraits, self-portraits, nudes, city scenes, and drawings and paintings of cats. His intimate relationship with his muse, lover, and wife, Lucie Badoud, and his cat, Mike, played significant roles in his works. His strong evocative line and exquisite use of color earned him a distinguished reputation in the Paris School of art, while his use of ‘fond blanc’ techniques to achieve a luminous quality, highlights his desired representation of the beauty of human skin. His work remains timeless, with exhibitions and auctions attracting high values.