Three Crows Flying at Sunset, orig. c. 1900

by Shibata Zeshin

IHL Cat. #2267


Three crows are passing through the frame of this design as the sun sets (some say, as the sun rises) in gradations of red, achieved through the printing technique known as bokashi. Zeshin's best known, and perhaps best loved, woodblock print design. Originally designed for an 1887 surimono (see below), the design was edited and re-purposed after the artist's death for a shikishiban (square format) version sometime around 1900, and possibly as early as 1888, and subsequently issued numerous times at least through the 1930s and possibly continuing after WWII. Earlier versions of the shikishiban print bear the artist's seal reading Zeshin in addition to the signature found on all versions of the print reading 八十一歳是真 (Hachijūissai Zeshin), "Eighty-one-year-old Zeshin." Prints that are described as "first editions", see below, do not have the narrow margin that is present on later versions, such as this collection's print.  Many of the later versions without the artist's seal often carry the words MADE IN JAPAN stamped on the verso (see Print Details below), indicating that the print was destined for export to the United States and that it was likely created between 1921, when the specific wording "Made in Japan" (rather than "Made in Nippon", for example) was required for imported goods, until 1939 when imports of Japanese products essentially ceased. 

In his article dedicated to this print appearing in the journal Andon 95, Robert Schaap notes, "One of the highlights of Meiji period (1868-1912) printmaking is without doubt Zeshin's print of crows flying across the sky in the red glow of a rising sun." He goes on to say that the design was listed as number 202 in a sample book of the Tokyo publisher Daikokuya Heikichi 大黒屋平吉; firm name: Shōjudō 松寿堂, the sample book likely dating to the first half of the 20th century. In Schapp's article a number of different printings are shown along with his comments on the different printings. He notes that "The most obvious later edition is without doubt the edition without the artist's seal. This edition was ordered (and distributed) by Robert O. Muller."[1]  While Schapp provides helpful insight into the various printings, it is unlikely the true number of printings/editions/states will ever be known for this image and linking a specific date to a particular print is impossible. All dates shown below for the shikishiban version of the print are as provided by the source of the image and should not be relied upon.

Crows were a common subject of Japanese prints and they figured prominently in Shibata's oeuvre, the crow being generally associated with auspicious things, most importantly as part of the official mythology of the nation, in which the three-legged sun-crow Yatagarasu served as a messenger of the sun goddess, assisting the first (legendary) Emperor Jinmu (Jinmu tennō 神武天皇) in pacifying Japan. 

[1] "Zeshin's 'Crows in flight at sunrise': The anatomy of a print," Robert Schapp, appearing in Andon 95, Society for Japanese Arts, December 2013, p. 32-40.

The 1887 Original Design by Shibata and the First Edition of the Daikokuya c. 1900 Design

Crows in flight, Shijō surimono, 1887

source: "Zeshin's 'Crows in flight at sunrise': The Anatomy of a Print," appearing in Andon 95, Society for Japanese Arts, December 2013, pl. 8, p. 35.

click on image to enlarge

Crows in Flight at Sunrise, c. 1900

"Original edition of the most famous print by Zeshin"

23.8 x 25 cm

Source: Lella & Gianni Morra

Crows in Flight at Sunset, 1888

Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891)

9 3/8 x 9 3/4 in. (23.8 x 24.8 cm)

Source: Collecting Japanese Prints

[gallery note early lifetime impression with red artist seal and lighter coloration to the background]

Crows in Flight at Sunrise, 1888

Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807–1891)

9 3/16 x 9 3/8 in. (23.3 x 23.8 cm)

Source: Honolulu Museum of Art 27650

[my note: a variant printing rarely seen]

Other Zeshin Prints Featuring Crows in Flight

Crows in sunset, c. 1900-1910s

9.8 x 3.3 in. (8.5 x 24.8 cm)

Source: artelino GmbH

Flying crow (Karasu), early 1900s

After Shibata Zeshin, 1807-1891, Japanese

23.5 x 24.1 cm (9 1/4 x 9 1/2 inches) 

Source: RISD 34.440 

Raven in flight on simulated open fan shape background. Light colour and imitation lacquer on paper. 

Claimed to be by: Shibata Zeshin (柴田是眞) 

Height: 25 centimetres; Width: 33.20 centimetres

Inscription type: signature; Inscription transliteration: Zeshin

Inscription type: seal; Inscription transliteration: Tairyukyo

Source: British Museum 1943,0508,0.4 

Two fan prints of a crow in flight in sunset, the first depicting the head and the upper half of the crow's body, signed Zeshin with seal Shin, the second with the lower half of the crow, stamped with the name and the address of an inn called 'Ichirikiro', unsigned

each approx. 21.1cm x 22.7cm (8 5/16in x 8 15/16in)

Source: Bonhams

Other Zeshin Works Featuring Crows in Flight

Two Crows 双烏図紙本漆絵掛軸, circa 1885

Hanging scroll, urushi-e on paper with silk mounts and wood jikusaki, depicting a larger and a smaller crow in flight, their feathers rendered in lustrous black lacquer; signed Gyōnen nanajūkyū-ō Tairyūkyo Zeshin 行年七十九翁 對柳居是真 (Tairyūkyo Zeshin, aged 79); seal: Tairyūō 對柳翁

Overall: 121 × 67.8 cm (47 5/8 × 26¾ in.)

Image: 36.4 × 50 cm (14 3/8 × 19 5/8 in.)

Source: Bonhams 

Raven, ink drawing on paper 1873

30 x 72 cm, incl. frame

Source: Grace Tsumugi Fine Art  

Sake cup (sakazuki): lacquer over wood; circular form on raided cylindrical foot, in black lacquer on red ground with a crow in flight

3/4 x 3 5/8 in. (.19 x 9.2 cm)

Print Details

Three crows flying at sunset #2267

artist signature

stamp on verso