Tigers in Japanese Art

Many budding artists labor under the dictum, “Draw what you see." Yet many practicing artists have followed a complementary belief, “Draw what you don’t see," as illustrated by Albrecht Durer, the Early Northern Renaissance master, and his print Rhinoceros. Durer depicts the African beast and its pleated armor with uncanny precision. He had only second-hand accounts as reference. Durer reconstructed a contemporary news item: a fabled, exotic exemplar was captured and destined for Papal Rome before its ship sank in a storm.

Rhinos aren’t native to Europe; tigers, meanwhile, aren’t native to Japan. The closest tigers prowl Russia’s Siberian woodlands, the northeastern part of China, and Korea. Yet curiously, tawny tigers have slinked through the silk scrolls of traditional Japanese art for centuries, as seen in a current exhibition, Patterned Feathers, Piercing Eyes at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. A few tigers had visited Japan before its cultural isolation ended in the late nineteenth century, full-grown cats and mewling kittens given as gifts to warlords and shoguns. But most artists seem to have depicted tigers using imported pelts as reference. Many artists also liked to depict leopards in the mistaken belief they were female tigers, a family of spots and stripes.

On a closer look, it appears some artists used house cats as models. Take Maruyama Okyo’s Sitting Tiger, enchantingly painted in 1777 . His inked tiger glares with green almond eyes and slitted pupils—an ocular feature common to house cats on sunny days, but not to tigers.

Without tigers to draw upon from life, Japanese artists depicted the fearsome kitties for cosmic reasons unknown to artists such as Durer. They drew upon Taoism, a mystical Chinese philosophy that grew from studying nature. In free-flowing Taoism, Chinese philosophers saw the universe in terms of a symbiotic yin and yang: yang, active and masculine, takes the form of a mythological dragon; yin, passive and feminine, the tiger common to some Chinese forests.

Japanese Zen Buddhism shares some beliefs with Chinese Taoism. In Japan, artists depicted twinned dragons and tigers on the sliding doors of Zen Buddhist temples. And like the Christian story of Saint Jerome and his lion, Buddhists believed that tigers accompanied long-ago holy men. In the Zen Buddhist imagination, a tiger grooms itself with monkish discipline, its sunlit nap a lasting metaphor for enlightenment.

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