Three Crows Flying at Sunset, orig. c. 1900
by Shibata Zeshin
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." 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.
 "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
Other Zeshin Prints Featuring Crows in Flight
Flying crow (Karasu), early 1900s
Other Zeshin Works Featuring Crows in Flight
Two Crows 双烏図紙本漆絵掛軸, circa 1885