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Paul Jacoulet was born in Paris to an academic father and a Basque country girl. At the age of 4 he was moved to Japan, where he spent the rest of his life. Due to a childhood marred by illness, Jacoulet directed his energies to art. He started painting in the ukiyo-e style before the age of ten, and was a self-taught artist. He practiced calligraphy, music, and linguistics, and was an ardent fan of the noh theatre and bunraku puppetry. Japanese culture enchanted him, and Jacoulet learned to play the Japanese samisen, spoke fluent Japanese, and sang traditional ballads.
After the great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, Jacoulet committed himself to the visual arts. He worked in the Japanese woodblock print medium, although his artistic style was quite Western. The works of Matisse and Schiele, whose paintings and prints he saw on his trips to Paris, influenced his use of color, lines, and perspective.
He led a life of relative leisure until the death of his father in World War I, when he was forced to find work. He worked for a time as an interpreter at the French Embassy in Tokyo, until his mother remarried and provided an income for him. Shortly after this, he was sent to the South Seas for the Winter (for health) by his mother, and there he found the subject matter he was to use throughout his career. Subjects include South Sea islanders, Mongolians, Manchurians, Koreans, and Ainu as well as Japanese. His decorative colorful style is a hybrid of Oriental and Occidental features. His prints (166 known) are mainly of South Seas subjects, in the Japanese ukiyo-e style, revealing a dramatic use of line and color. His prints were sold mainly to a Western audience. The Japanese collectors, accustomed to faded colors and the classical faces of ukiyo-e actors and courtesans, were sometimes alienated by his bold use of color and non-Japanese subjects.
Jacouet's work fell into obscurity after his death (from diabetes), in 1960. With the exception of a few prints published by Kato Junji in 1934 his works were self-published; carved by Yamagishi Kazue and Maeda Kentaro. Jacoulet was among the first foreign artists to represent the peoples of the South Pacific, Korea, and the Ainu of nothern Japan. He saw himself as a recorder and preserver of vanishing peoples and cultures. Though he worked in a time of tumultuous political and social chage, he, like many of his contemporaries, chose to illustrate romanticized views of Asia. His work experienced a resurgence of popularity in the late 20th century.