A Japanese princess going to church signed and inscribed 'Tornai Gy. Tokio' (lower left) oil on canvas 96 1/2 x 52in (245 x 132cm) Painted circa 1906
EXHIBITED: Goupil Gallery, London, 1906; Emil Richter Kunstsalon, Dresden, November 1907; Keller und Reiner Kunstsalon, Berlin, November 1907; Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, January 1908; Leipzig, March - April, 1908; Galerie Bock, Hamburg, May 1908; 'Japan and India', Tornai solo exhibition, Budapest, October, 1909, no. 12.
LITERATURE: Elet, 24 October 1909, p. 548; Budapest, Japan and India: Tornai Gyula, Mucsarnok, 1909, no. 12; Paur Geza, 'Tornai Exhibition on Japan and India,' Vasarnapi Ujsag, 10 October 1909, pp. 849-850; Kovacs Agnes: 'Dancing Geisha. About Tornai's Oriental Paintings', Artmagazin, 2008, vol. 2, pp. 56-64.
Born in 1861 in Görgö, Gyula Tornai received his artistic education at the academies in Vienna, Munich and in Benczur's studio in Budapest. He exhibited in London, Paris and in the Budapest Art Gallery in 1909 and in the National Salon in 1917. He began his career painting the genre scenes that were so popular in the last quarter of the 19th Century, but after his travels to India, China, Japan and Morocco his themes changed to depictions of the varied and exotic places and customs of those destinations. Tornai stayed in Tangier from 1890 to 1891 and in 1900 he exhibited pictures in the Exposition Universelle in Paris to great acclaim.
In 1904, Tornai offered a significant number of works from these journeys for sale in Budapest in order to finance an artistic adventure to India and Japan. The sale of the paintings was a great success and in the summer of 1905 the artist set off for the Far East. He began his Japanese foray by painting a portrait of the former Japanese prime-minister Count Okuma, and with this influential patron, Tornai was allowed access to aspects of Japanese life which were often hidden from Europeans at the time and enabled the artist to delve deeply into the world of Buddhism and Shintoism. Over the next sixteen months, Tornai traveled throughout the Land of the Rising Sun and visited Nara, Kyoto, Nikko and Nagoya.
Upon his return from this two year journey which included a tour in India, the artist gathered together sixty large canvases and several studies and sent them on exhibition through several major European cities, including London, Paris, Hamburg, Dresden, Leipzig and finally Budapest in the autumn of 1909. In his own words, Tornai described this painting in the exhibition catalogue: 'Item 12: Japanese princess going to church. Her servants stay outside in the yard waiting for their lady, and prostrate themselves in prayer for Buddha. The princess on the painting is the mikado's elder sister whose authority demanded even Europeans prostrate themselves in respect a few years ago.'
The painting depicts the elder sister of Mutsuhito, Emperor of Japan from 1867 to 1912, accompanied by her servants as she enters a Buddhist shrine. Executed in the vivid colors so characteristic of the artist and painted on a heroic scale, A Japanese princess going to church is a tour-de-force of color and composition. The colorful kimonos of the ladies-in waiting as well as their varied positions create an energy in the foreground of the painting that is carried up the steps of the shrine to the figure of the princess, her head bowed in devotion. The swirling colors of her richly-decorated kimono echo the curve of the staircase as well as the ornamental carving of the doorway to the shrine. In this painting, Tornai has given the viewer a glimpse into a world totally foreign to the European sensibility and despite the broad brushstrokes and dynamism of composition the artist has created a world of hushed devotion and reverence.