Born in Sendai, Japan, Chiura Obata began his first art lessons at age 7 and studied privately until 15. He then moved to Tokyo, where he entered the Bijitsuin Art Institute. In 1903, he traveled to San Francisco and began working as an illustrator for local Japanese periodicals.
Motivated by his love of nature, Obata’s images of the California landscape often combine local subject matter with compositions derived from Japanese prints. As part of his “World Landscape Series,” he created 35 woodblock prints of California drawn from watercolors that he made on a 1927 trip to the Yosemite Valley and Sierras. At once meditative and majestic, these works seemed to fuse a perfect balance between his training and his adopted home.
Obata also produced still lifes and portraits. In some instances, such as in this painting, he fully embraced his Japanese heritage. Maiden of Northern Japan was, in fact, composed in Sendai, Japan, but the artist finished it at the San Francisco Art Association in February 1931. For a week, Obata demonstrated his technique, utilizing “Japanese design and traditions” to finish the painting before an enthusiastic audience.(1)
Obata taught in the art department of the University of California at Berkeley from 1932 to 1953, except during World War II, when Executive Order 9066 forced his internment at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah. Even there, however, Obata continued his commitment to education, directing the Topaz Art School, which had 16 artist-instructors and some 600 students. During retirement, he led tours to Japan and offered demonstrations of Japanese brush painting.
(1) “Obata Woodcut, Painting Displays Open Monday,” San Francisco Call Bulletin, 31 January 1931.