Shoen Uemura was the first woman recipient of the Order of Culture, Japan's highest award for cultural achievement. She was born in 1875, two months after the death of her father who, together with his wife, was a proprietor of a tea shop in Kyoto. She grew up in an all female household together with her mother and aunts. The tea shop was somewhat of a cultural center, attracting a refined clientele who wished to learn the art of Japanese tea, Chanoya.
As a child she drew pictures, while her mother bustled about the shop. Even the customers were attracted by the beauty of her drawings, although she was just a small girl. She read early and copied illustrations from these books.
She was obsessed with the works of Hokusai (1760-1849), a famous u-kiyo-e' wood block artist. Very early in her career she won a famous painting competition and after graduation from school she attended the Kyoto Prefectural Painting School. This was an exceptional breakthrough for her and proof that women could be more than housewives.
While under the tutelage of special teachers, she was awarded commissions to do themes for expositions and national cultural events. For a while her reputation was tainted as she was suspected of a liaison with her teacher, Shoen Suzuki. Indeed, she was fond of him, because she changed her original name of Tsune to Shoen. Her paiting, The Beauty of Four Seasons, was in an important national exhibit and raised her to prominence when it was purchased by the Duke of Connaught on his visit to Japan.
She became a member of the Japan Fine Arts Academy and she and her former teacher, Suzuki, received silver medals for a joint painting. She gave birth to a daughter but would never reveal the name of the father.
Her work ultimately was showcased by the Japanese government and her awards were many. Portraits of women were her favorite theme. She paited them with children as graceful dancers. She felt that women possessed a quiet but determined will. She continued painting until her death in 1949.