Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Eleonora Ragusa or O’Tama Kiyohara: Japanese Painter in Sicily

O'Tama Kiyohara. Source: https://www.palermoviva.it/

Women Artists

Eleonora Ragusa or O’Tama Kiyohara: Japanese Painter in Sicily

Italy still holds so many secrets to me! One of such secrets was O’Tama Kiyohara (later Eleonora Ragusa), a woman so brave to leave her homeland for her husband and so ambitious to found a Japanese art school in Sicily.

O'Tama Kiyohara
O’Tama Kiyohara, Portrait, 1883. Photo: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

After centuries of closure, Japan opened to foreign influence and trade in 1853. In his efforts to catch up with the global developments in technology, military, agriculture and science, Emperor Meiji, or Meiji the Great, invited European scientists and experts to Japan. In the invited group there were also three Italian artists who received a task to found an art school which would train young artists who would later equate Japanese art to European modern styles. Quickly did the new Kobu Bijutsu Gekko school in Tokyo open its doors to students trained in painting by Antonio Fontanesi, sculpture by Vincenzo Ragusa, and architecture by Vincenzo Cappelletti.

O'Tama Ragusa
O’Tama Kiyohara, A sketch for a fan, 1887. Source: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

Vincenzo Ragusa, originated from Palermo, met O’Tama in a garden where she was painting fans. He fell for her straightaway and asked her to pose for a sculpture. Despite of a 20 year age difference, they quickly became lovers.

O'Tama Kiyohara
Vincenzo Ragusa, O’Tama Ragusa, 1883, photo: Davide Mauro.

O’Tama was a real pioneer. She was the first Japanese woman in history who married a European artist. She was also a skilled painter with enough courage to paint differently. Aged 21, she left her beloved Japan to follow her husband to Sicily, thankfully together with her sister and brother in law. They moved in a house in Palermo, where O’Tama lived until 1933.

O'Tama Kiyohara
O’Tama Kiyohara, The blessing of the animals, 1891. Source: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

She changed her name to Eleonora Ragusa and set off on a new exciting project: to found a school of Japanese art in Sicily where she would teach lacquer, painting and weaving. Unfortunately, after a couple of years the school had to close due to financial problems and complicated Italian bureaucracy.

The Japonist and art historian Maria Antonietta Spadaro tells that…

when arrived to Palermo, O’Tama found herself facing the entirety of Italian art. Her painting was instead variable and eclectic, ahead of its times since she chose to use techniques which did not yet exist in Japan. Let’s take The Night of the Feast of Ascension (Notte dell’ascensione): although all contemporary painters had depicted Mount Pellegrino, she was the first one to do it as a nocturnal scene. She showed the mount from above with a nebulous sky and lanterns which nobody had ever painted before, since the electric lamp posts were a complete novelty for Palermo and other Italian cities. Only the Futurists would have focused on them some time after that.

O'Tama Kiyohara
O’Tama Kiyohara, The night of the Ascension feast (La notte dell’Ascensione), 1891. Source: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

O’Tama undoubtedly brought innovation to the hermetic Italian art world which had been fearing that art from the Far East would contaminate its pure artistic expression. Instead, it enriched it.

A video with English subtitles produced by Salvatore Militello accompanying the exhibition on Otama which opened in Palermo in December 2019.

O’Tama’s husband died in 1927 but she remained in Palermo. Not long after her husband’s death, her extraordinary story was unearthed by two Japanese magazines which started writing a cover story on her life. Her Japanese relatives sent for her to Europe and in 1933 she returned to Japan, after 51 years of absence. Soon after she opened a painting workshop in Shiba where she taught Italian art and culture until her death in 1937.

If you enjoy Japanese art, check all you must know about Japanese erotic art, shunga (18+)

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.


More in Women Artists

  • dailyart

    Celebrities of the Floating World


    Celebrities of the floating world is the first Romanian exhibition of a private ukiyo-e collection and one of the very few of its kind in the world. In addition, it is the first that all main five themes of Japanese woodblock print, historical/heroes, beautiful women/courtesans, landscape,...

  • Cinema

    The Scenes You Might Know From Anime: Outstanding Prints of Hasui Kawase


    Hasui Kawase (1883-1957) was one of Japan’s most important and prolific printmakers and artists of the late 19th and early-20th centuries. As a prominent designer of the shin-hanga (“new prints”) movement, he depicted traditional subjects with a Western twist to create a unique and colorful style...

  • Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, color woodblock print, close-up with one great wave and one smaller wave in the foreground Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, color woodblock print, close-up with one great wave and one smaller wave in the foreground


    Under Hokusai’s Great Wave


    You might not know the title of Hokusai’s print, but Under the Wave off Kanagawa is almost instantly recognizable. His Great Wave reveals the power of the sea and is frequently featured on everyday objects. We perceive it as a typical Japanese print. However, it is not quite as straightforward...

  • 20th century

    Miyatake Gaikotsu and his Puzzling Postcards


    At the beginning of the 20th century, when Japan started embracing the West and rapid industrialization of almost all aspects of life, Miyatake Gaikotsu (funnily enough, gaikotsu means ‘skull/skeleton’ in Japanese) was the one who questioned and interpreted the nascent culture of modernization. And he did...

  • Art Forms

    Wild, Practical, Erotic and Magical: The Miniature World of Netsuke


    Originating in 17th century Japan during the Edo Period, Netsuke (pronounced nets-keh) are toggles that attach pouches to the traditional robes, kimonos. Men’s kimonos had no pockets (the women’s version had large sleeves to carry and contain items), so out of necessity, small pouches were needed....

To Top