Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, November 30, 2021 | Phillips
  • “Cats never give anything away. They are out for what they can get… They have grace, beauty of movement, intriguing languor. Cats are never in a hurry, never angular.  They move softly, gently, insinuatingly.” 
    — Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita 


    Self-Portrait with a Cat is one of the finest examples of Japanese-French artist Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita’s acclaimed self-portraits. Donning a pudding bowl haircut and Chaplin moustache that echoes the whiskers of the cat nuzzling at his shoulder, Foujita gazes out at the viewer from behind black, circular spectacles that have become iconic signifiers of the artist’s eccentric style. The artist’s delight and pride in his craft is evident, beautifully conveyed by the tilted paintbrush Foujita balances in his hand that marks an instant comparison to museum collection showpieces like the Art Institute of Chicago’s Self-Portrait with a Cat (circa 1920s), and Self-Portrait (1929) — now housed at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. 


    Executed in 1931, at the crescendo of a highly sought-after period in Foujita’s oeuvre where he truly mastered fusing Japanese techniques with the elegance and luminous palette acquired during his first period in Paris, the present work embodies his unique vision that continues to charm almost one century on. 




    Left: Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita, Self-Portrait with Cat, circa 1920s, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago
    © Foujita Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2021
    Right: Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita, Self-Portrait, 1929, Collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
    © Foujita Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2021


    The Image of an Artist


    The son of a general in Japan’s imperial army, Foujita was born in Tokyo in 1886 and demonstrated an aptitude for art at an early age. Following his graduation from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts in 1910, he moved to Paris just 3 years later with big aspirations, writing home to his father: ‘consider me dead until I become famous.’ It was not long after that Foujita claimed his quirky, fashion-forward appearance caught the attention of the Chilean painter Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, who introduced himself and quickly became a friend, inviting Foujita to accompany him to visit Pablo Picasso’s studio on rue Schoelcher.





    Pablo Picasso, Self Portrait, 1906, Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA
    © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



    There, in front of Picasso’s paintings and his collection of Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Rousseau, Foujita felt electrified, deciding he must adapt his vision to either oppose or align with Western art. Over countless trips to the Louvre he perfected replicating masterpieces from art history, simultaneously drawing inspiration from Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, and his other contemporaries who were defining the flourishing creative scene at that time. What Foujita offered in comparison, however, was a unique ability to incorporate his mastery of Eastern sensibilities and, in marrying the two by the early 1920s, he followed a ‘path that no other Japanese artist had dared to take before’ i, soon coming to be admired as Paris’ shining star.



    The themes Foujita returned to recurrently throughout his oeuvre were self-portraits, women, cats, still life and portrayals of children, and whilst he did so amid the great wave of major modernist movements, he never broke away from his idiosyncratic approach. This is exquisitely captured in Self-Portrait with a Cat, formed of delicate lines that exude an exemplary calligraphic finesse, achieved with touches of sumi ink on silk that depart from the preference for thicker brushstroke more commonly employed by his peers. Though intimate in scale, the details are grand, as evidenced by the clarity of the artist’s eyes framed by individual fluttering lashes. In fact, Foujita attributed his flair for painstaking precision to his myopia, believing it was his short-sightedness that allowed for such heightened focus.




    Detail of the present work



    Subtle washes of pearlescent white, brown, and blush-pink then fills the forms as the cat’s furry stripes, contours of the artist’s face, and creases in his shirt are refined with milky highlight and shadow. A feature of Foujita’s most highly regarded works, it is this iridescence that adds an almost sculptural quality to the overall composition, seizing the viewers’ eyes at even first glance.  


    Foujita’s Feline Muses 


    “The reason why I so much enjoy being friends with cats is that they have two different characters: a wild side and a domestic side. This is what makes them interesting.” 
    — Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita  


    Foujita adored cats throughout his lifetime, both as companions and as a signature motif. He began including them in his works with his early reclining nudes, however soon relied on them as subjects when no human model was available, explaining: ‘since they were always in my studio, I sometimes put a cat at my side in my self-portraits or placed them by my nudes as a kind of signature’ii.





    Left: Edouard Manet, Woman with a Cat, circa 1880

    Collection of Tate, London

    Right: Auguste Renoir, Woman with Cat, circa 1875

    Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.



    Contrasting how the motif is explored in works such as Edouard Manet’s Woman with a Cat (circa 1880) and Auguste Renoir’s Woman with Cat (circa 1875)—where the cat is brought to the centre of each composition—in the present painting, Foujita casts himself as the protagonist with his feline friend in a supporting role, gazing up at his master from behind the artist’s shoulder. The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo come to mind as an arguably more apt comparison as she too, includes the image of her pets around the artist’s own depiction to contribute to her exploration of the stories of her life, her loves, her joys, and her sorrows.


    Though she adored her monkey, Fulang-Chang, for his childlike and playful nature, he also provided Kahlo a source of comfort as she was haunted by her misery of not being able to bear children. Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey from 1938 is particularly interesting to consider, as like in Foujita’s Self-Portrait with a Cat, both artists present themselves with self-assured expressions of slightly pouted lips and eyes that directly meet those of their audiences.  However, contrasting Kahlo’s self-portrait where her monkey drapes his arm around her neck in a tender and loving display of love, whilst Foujita’s cat is immediately endearing with his velvety-fur, the tiny tiger-tooth that peeks out hints at the creature’s wilder capabilities. 


    And yet, as cats are renowned in Japanese folklore as symbols of good luck, believed to bring prosperous fortune to those who own them, Foujita’s inclusion of this pointed tooth can perhaps be understood instead as a representation of the animal’s protective instincts and devoted loyalty.





    Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938
    Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York  
    2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York



    The present work was created at the end of Foujita’s formative first period in Paris, just as he departed the city with his love Madeleine to embark on a journey around Latin America. Showcasing a perfect balance between tradition and modernity, and East and West, Self-Portrait with a Cat embodies the style and originality that propelled Foujita to becoming one of the most influential painters of 20th Century art.


    Collector’s Digest


    An eccentric icon of the early 20th Century School of Paris, the Tokyo-born Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita bridges traditions and modernity in his cross-cultural practice, which spans works depicting female nudes and cats with masterful techniques rooted in Japanese art tradition. His recent posthumous retrospectives were held at Pola Museum of Art in Hakone (17 Apr – 5 Sept 2021), Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (31 July 31 – 8 October 2018), and Musée Maillol in Paris (7 Mar – 15 July 2018). His work can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.



    Agnès Poirier, ‘Back in favour: Japanese master who outshone Picasso in 1920s Paris’, The Guardian, 15 April 2018, online 

    ii Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita, quoted in Phyllis Brinbaum, Glory in a Line – A Life of Foujita, The Artist Caught Between East & West, New York, 2006, p. 113

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, Japan
      Christie's, New York, 20 November 1998, lot 855
      Private Collection, Paris
      Private Collection
      Private Collection, London
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2011, lot 1009
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Dinard, Palais des Arts et du Festival, Foujita, le Maître japonais de Montparnasse, 27 June - 25 September 2004, pl. 66, pp. 82, 185 (illustrated)
      Paris, Galerie Félix Vercel, 40e anniversaire de la disparition de Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, November 2007 - January 2008, pl. 1 (illustrated)

Property from the Collection of Ruey Hsiu Lou


Self-Portrait with a Cat

signed and dated 'Tsuguharu [in Kanji] Foujita 1931' centre right
mixed media on silk
44.5 x 34.2 cm. (17 1/2 x 13 1/2 in.)
Executed in 1931, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Sylvie Buisson.

Full Cataloguing

HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for HK$5,292,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021