Fritz Capelari was the first Western artist to design prints for the shin hanga publisher Watanabe Shozaburo. Born with the name Friedrich Capelari in 1884, Fritz grew up in Bleiburg, a town in the Carinthia district of southern Austria. The Carinthia region was notable for fine wood carving and Fritz's father worked as a decorative wood carver and an interior house painter.
As a young man, Capelari went to trade school to learn a craft, probably house painting, and discovered a talent for art. He stayed in school an additional year to study graphics and went on to the Academy of Painting in Vienna in 1906. He studied art there for the next four years and received the prestigious Griepenkerl academic award. In 1911, Capelari departed for Shanghai on a commission to paint pictures for the British insurance company Lloyds of London. For the next four years, he travelled and painted in China, Java, and Japan. While living in Tokyo, his path would cross that of the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo.
In 1915, Watanabe was looking for new artists to revitalize the art of woodblock prints. No longer satisfied with his work with Takahashi Shotei, he wanted to work with an artist who could paint Japanese scenes in a realistic Western style. That spring, he noticed Capelari's watercolors in a Japanese department store exhibition. Watanabe was impressed and contacted Capelari, hoping to arrange a collaboration. Capelari was fascinated with the carving and printing aspects of Watanabe's work because of his background in wood carving and graphics. He agreed to collaborate with Watanabe and soon afterwards, they produced a print called Returning Home in the Rain. Though Capelari based this print on a ukiyo-e design by Hokusai, the details in his print are minimized. The shapes and colors take on an abstract modern quality, despite the traditional subject matter.
Watanabe went on to publish 11 more designs by Capelari that year, including landscapes and bijin-ga, or "beautiful women" prints. Watanabe was pleased with his landscapes but less than satisfied with Capelari's bijin portraits. The women in these prints look more European than Japanese with their round faces and Western features. Though Watanabe's customers were mostly Westerners, they were interested in scenes and portraits that were distinctly Japanese. For this reason, Watanabe pursued collaborations with the Japanese artists Hashiguchi Goyo and Ito Shinsui. Both Goyo and Shinsui became masters of the bijin-ga print genre. One of Shinsui's earliest prints, After the Bath, is clearly based on the Capelari print, Woman with Cat.
Watanabe later published two more landscape prints by Capelari, Fuji from a Desolate Field in 1918 and Pines, Yotsuya Mitsuke in 1920. Capelari left Japan in 1922, travelling around Europe for 10 years. He returned to Asia in 1932, but did not design any other woodblock prints. During the latter part of his life, he settled in his hometown of Bleiburg, Austria and joined the Carinthia Art Society. Many of his paintings and wood sculptures were clearly influenced by Asian art. Capelari's contribution to the shin hanga movement was indeniably important, paving the way for both Japanese and Western print designers.