Artist Spotlight and a Giveaway…Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print


I’ve been down and out with a bit of a stomach bug the last few days but luckily I’ve had Frederick Harris’s book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print which has been eminently digestible. Harris was a fifty year plus veteran of life in Japan, having come there after serving in the Korean War and staying on to pursue his artistic ambitions. I was lucky enough to know him through the Tokyo American Club before he passed away in 2010.

Ukiyo-e, traditional Japanese prints, have existed since before the 17th century but truly flowered during the Edo period (1603-1868). They were mass-produced and created for mass-consumption by the common man – in effect the postcards and the Instagrams of the day. A four-part team of artist, carver, printer and publisher worked together to produce these images of ‘the floating world’ – impermanent places of pleasure. Geisha and courtesans, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, were all common subjects, along with landscape series, flora and fauna and the more unusual shunga (erotic prints) and Yokohama-e (prints with foreigners). Illustrated with only the choicest selections, Harris’s book arranges them by subject rather than chronology or artist, breaking down what can be a very confusing area of work, and highlighting the key issues and players.

He neatly spells out the three great H’s of Japanese scenic prints, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui, spanning a 100 year period. I was not that familiar with Hokusai’s waterfall series which while not as famous as his Mount Fuji series, Harris believed to be his masterpieces. “They are the most contemporary of all his compositions, embracing abstract qualities that do not appear in world art until the twentieth century.” I think he has a point there! Harris highlights the dynamism of what is – in theory – a landscape print by Hiroshige by wondering where the viewer would actually have to be standing to view this Boy’s Day carp streamer. And in Hasui’s shin hanga print, designed to appeal to a Western customer, with its romantic and nostalgic views of Japan, we see a level of craftsmanship and emotional content not seen before. To really appreciate the details, be sure to click and enlarge the images.

Hokusai Hiroshige Hasui

(1) Katsushika HOKUSAI, Kirifuri Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province, c. 1832, (2) Utagawa HIROSHIGE, Sudo bridge and Surugadai, from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1856-58, (3) Kawase HASUI, Snow at Mukojima 1931

Harris is sure to include a chapter on ukiyo-e books, an area that is both dear to my heart and often overlooked. From simple but powerful sumi ink illustrations by the ‘father” of ukiyo-e, Hishikawa Moronobu, in the 1650s to delicate asymmetrical compositions from Watanabe Seitei influenced by European paintings after the turn of the 20th century, Harris’s book is full of numerous rare images from the author’s collection.

(1) Hishikawa MORONOBU, Lovers on the Veranda, c.1650, (2) Watanabe SEITEI, Seitei Kacho Gofu (Seitei's Bird and Flower Album) 1916

(1) Hishikawa MORONOBU, Lovers on the Veranda, c.1650, (2) Watanabe SEITEI, Seitei Kacho Gofu (Seitei’s Bird and Flower Album) 1916

The final chapter is on Yokohama-e, prints about foreigners in Japan and the way in which Japanese artists imagined and portrayed them. Other than the Dutch, who were kept at far arms length, Japan was effectively closed to foreigners from the 1630s until the mid 19th century, until Commodore Perry and the Treaty of Kanagawa forced the opening of the country to outsiders. By far the most interesting image for me in this chapter is Utagawa Yoshitora’s Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy Training Ground at Tsukiji from 1870. Normally a triptych (three sheet print image) I have cropped it to two for a bit of comparison. In it we see a few Western women, in quite accurate dress for 1870, watching the launch of an exciting technical invention new to Japan – the hot air balloon.

Yoshitora Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy Training Ground at Tsukiji

Utagawa YOSHITORA, Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy Training Ground at Tsukiji, 1870

Besides being fascinated by this era in Japanese history and the cross-fertilization happening, I have also had the luck to have seen and held two of the three panels of this print in my hands. Take a few moments to really examine and compare these photos and see if you can find the fascinating major differences, besides some of the obvious coloring in the dresses, between them.

Yoshitoa Trial Balloon Launch at the Naval Academy

These images give you a real sense of the complexity of learning about and collecting ukiyo-e as many of the most popular prints went through multiple printings and sometimes continue to be printed today. Harris makes excellent points about getting educated and using your eye and common sense when buying. Remember, if it is in absolute perfect condition and a bargain, most likely it’s a modern-day reprint.

So? What did you spot? Did you notice how all the flags on the balloons were changed from Japanese flags to American flags? According to Wikipedia, the Japanese officially decreed the Nisshōki or Hinomaru (sun flag) as the national emblem in 1870, although it was already accepted as the de facto flag of Japan. The print itself is from 1870, which makes the timing quite interesting. In all the other examples of this print in museum collections around the world, the flags are American as in my example. Harris’s example is courtesy of the Mita Arts Gallery, a very respected ukiyo-e gallery in Japan. I may have to write to them and see if they have more information. What else?  The seals and stamps are quite different – if anyone’s Japanese is good enough to shed some light on them it would be very appreciated. Other small details include the stairs and walkway in the lawn in the background and the gazebo shape in the trees. I’m sure my eagle-eyed readers will spot many more!

Now on to the good part – the GIVEAWAY!! Tuttle Publishing has kindly offered 2 copies of Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print for me to offer to my readers. They will send them anywhere in the world, so everyone can enter. All you need to do is comment on this post, ideally after visiting Tuttle Publishing online and taking a look at their outstanding offerings in Art, Architecture & Design, with a real focus on Asia, and telling me what other books you’d like to see me discuss (and possibly have available for future giveaways :-))

The giveaway closes a week from tomorrow on Friday, September 19 at midnight EST. Winners will be announced the following week.

Related Posts:
Hanga 101…a Quick Primer on Japanese Prints
An Artistic Reflection…The 1860 Japanese Envoy to America and Yokohama-e
Artist Spotlight…Van Gogh: The Adventure of Becoming an Artist
Artist Spotlight…Dancers, Degas and the Demi-Monde in Yokohama
Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism
Battledores and Badminton…A History Of Hanetsuki Through Ukiyo-e
Artist Spotlight…58th CWAJ Print Show

An Artistic Reflection…The 1860 Japanese Envoy to America and Yokohama-e

Shosha Amerikajin (True Picture of Americans), c. 1861

Last week, The New York Times ran an article on the first visit by Japanese envoys to America in 1860. The article is part of a larger historical series on the Civil War, but what I found so interesting were the artistic renderings of their trip by the visitors and the gifts they brought with them to present to the President. This first diplomatic mission was led by three Japanese officials and completed by a retinue of 77 others (including 6 cooks). For President Buchanan, on the cusp of political crisis, the visit was a popular and welcome diversion and the visitors took the country by storm.  Newspapers and the paparazzi of the day recorded every move, while the Japanese themselves also recorded their impressions and images of America.

Delegates and NY Lady, Stereoscope view, hand-colored, Studio of C.D. Fredricks & Co. Collection of Tom Burnett

The impressions of the Japanese were filtered through the lens of their experience. Drawn by a member of the Japanese delegation, one would think that this sketch of Washington D.C. was some pleasure garden or village back in Japan. Closer viewing reveals the Capitol, the base of the Washington Monument and the bridge across the Potomac to Virginia.

sketch of Washington D.C., 1860

Repairs to the ship meant to carry them back to Japan were delayed and as a result, the delegation was treated to quite a tour, including a balloon ascension in Philadelphia. Clearly, it impressed them and they recorded it in great detail as shown in this woodblock print circa 1865.
The envoys brought many gifts from the Emperor of Japan as well. Most interesting to me is the lacquer chigai-dana (staggered shelf cabinet) that can be seen in the far right corner of the etching below (from an 1860 newspaper). It shows President Buchanan and his niece unwrapping all the gifts they received from the delegates.
The white house inventory shows this chigai-dana, which actually turns out to be a different one, gifted earlier to President Franklin Pierce by Commodore Perry when he returned from his fateful voyage in 1855.
Currently, it resides in the sitting room adjoining the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House. You can just see it in the left corner of this photo. It is believed that the 1860 chigai-dana is stored in the Smithsonian somewhere…
This small early 19th century lacquered and gilded shelf cabinet is currently for sale at Naga Antiques in New York.
And I recently saw a simple two shelf version heavily decorated with maki-e (sprinkled gilding) and fans at the Oedo Market at Tokyo International Forum.

Back in Japan, foreign traders were now allowed under the “Treaty of Friendship and Commerce”. They set up in the port city of Yokohama and were limited to a 25 mile radius. The foreigners were fascinating to the local population and a new form of ukiyo-e, called Yokohama-e, emerged. It depicted these strange new people and their dress, their weapons, their customs and so on.  Earlier works, such as this 1855 print, were based on much speculation and little real information, and as such, the rendering of the faces and dress is clearly not that accurate.

Tagawa Hiromichi, Appearance of Foreign Barbarians "England"

This print, from “A Series of the European Countries,” was made only 6 years later and also depicts an Englishman, but in this case both faces and dress reflect a fairly accurate view.

Utagawa Yoshikazu, Englishman with A Dog

While rarer and more expensive than ordinary ukiyo-e, these Yokohama prints can still be found in markets, antique stores and on-line. I saw this print on Sunday at the Tomioka Hachiman shrine sale. If you click to enlarge it you can see more easily the mixture of people and activities, including the American/European couple in red at the bottom towards the right. The combination of  Western and Japanese style buildings next to each other is great too. Unfortunately I do not know the name of the print or the artist.

Back in my hometown of New York, the exhibition “Samurai in New York: The First Japanese Delegation 1860” has just closed at the Museum of the City of New York. It was one of a number of “Heritage of Friendship” events planned this year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1860 visit. Currently running at the Yokosuka City Museum (in Japanese) is the sister exhibit “Japan and America in 19th Century-Technical Revolution and Diplomacy” . If you would like to read more in-depth information I recommend reading Guests of the Nation:The Japanese Delegation to the Buchanan White House by Dallas Finn on the White House Historical Association website. The Library of Congress also has an amazing collection on this topic. Other resources inlcude Ann Yonemura’s book Yokohama:Japanese Woodblock Prints from the 19th Century.

A Quick Addendum:
A few days after this post I stumbled across this ballon ascension print from the same series as the one shown above. It is missing its third panel, but is clearly by the same artist, Yoshitora Utagawa. Such a rare image in ukiyo-e! And you gotta love the inaccurate rendering of the U.S. Flag! This one is currently for sale at Okura Antiques.

Image credits: 1, 3 & 4. Library of Congress collection via The New York Times, 3. via The Museum of the City of New York , 5-7. The White House Historical Association, 8. Naga Antiques, 9. me, 10. Library of Congress Exhibits. 11. Hotei Japanese Prints, 12. me.

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