Japanese Fascination with the West is Explored in Exhibition of 19th-Century Yokohama Prints at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Isolated by the ruling Tokugawa shogunate from the outside world, Japanese citizens were naturally curious about the Westerners who began to arrive on their shores following Commodore Matthew Perry’s historic voyages to Japan in 1853–1854. This growing fascination led to the flourishing of hundreds of color woodcuts portraying the foreigners who arrived after Japan opened its borders to trade with the United States, France, Britain, the Netherlands and Russia at the end of the 1850s.

The exhibition of 98 woodcuts, selected from the Museum’s extensive collection of 19th-century Japanese prints, showcases the rising interest in the dress, habits, and technologies of Westerners. The prints feature the coal-powered vessels, known as “Black Ships,” of the trade nations, ladies in fancy hoop skirts and gentlemen in top hats, unusual household furnishings, and imaginary views of foreign countries.

“We are pleased to share this aspect of the Museum’s rich collection of more than 150,000 prints, drawings and photographs with our visitors,” said Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Museum. “The exhibition offers a fascinating perspective on the Japanese response to the foreigners who appeared at their ports. This is the first time the Yokohama woodcuts have been displayed at the Museum in more than 30 years.”

“The prints stand apart from the popular traditional ukiyo-e prints from the same time period, which focused on motifs of daily Japanese life, native landscapes, entertainment, and theater subjects,” said Shelley R. Langdale, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings. “It is fascinating, from a Western perspective to see the West portrayed as a manifestation of the exotic.”

Having perfected color woodcut techniques during the 18th century, Japanese print publishers competed to present novel, current subject matter to meet the demand of a wide audience. A place transformed from small fishing village into a major port, Yokohama was a rich source for subjects, inspiring colorful and often whimsical images of its newest residents. Sadahide (1807–1873), among the most prolific Yokohama print artists, was known for his detailed views of the city. Included is Sadahide’s magnificent panorama Complete Picture of the Newly Opened Port of Yokohama (c. 1860); printed on eight joined sheets it is one of the largest composite color woodcut prints ever issued in Japan (27 1/8 x 75 inches) and provides an accurate representation of the rapidly developing region.

Other prints provide a highly fantastical view of Yokohama and its new arrivals. Artists often supplemented eyewitness accounts with imagery copied from black-and-white illustrations found in imported Western journals and publications such as the Illustrated London News. Many artists represented married couples of various foreign nationalities, such as those made by Utagawa Yoshiiku (Japanese, 1833 – 1904), for the series “Pictures of People from Foreign Lands.” In the rush to meet the demand for images, mistakes often occurred – particularly as many Japanese artists could not read the foreign captions that accompanied Western illustrations. A striped red, white, and green Italian flag is depicted with two figures in a print by Utagawa Yoshitora (Japanese, 1836 – 1887), titled Russians (Two Russian Men with a Flag).

Some 31 Japanese artists produced more than 500 print designs during the first two years of the opening of Yokohama’s port. Yokohama woodcuts were printed in large quantities and sold inexpensively at bookstalls and by itinerant vendors, and by some of the same print shops and publishers that produced the works of well-known ukiyo-e print artists, such as Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), and Hokusai (1760-1849). The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns one of the largest collections of Yokohama woodcuts in the United States.

Image: A Russian Couple Holding Hands, 1861. Utagawa Kunihisa II, Japanese, 1832 – 1891. Color woodcut, Öban tate-e: 14 1/4 x 9 3/4 inches (36.2 x 24.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund and with funds contributed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner, Dr. Emanuel Wolff, the Derald and Janet Ruttenberg Foundation, Mrs. Edward G. Budd, Jr., and David P. Willis, 1968

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is among the largest art museums in the United States, showcasing more than 2,000 years of exceptional human creativity in masterpieces of painting, sculpture, works on paper, decorative arts and architectural settings from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. An exciting addition is the newly renovated and expanded Perelman Building, which opened its doors in September 2007 with five new exhibition spaces, a soaring skylit galleria, and a café overlooking a landscaped terrace. The Museum offers a wide variety of enriching activities, including programs for children and families, lectures, concerts and films.

For additional information, contact the Communications Department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art at (215) 684-7860. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street.

For general information, call (215) 763-8100 or visit the Museum’s website at www.philamuseum.org

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