Floating World of Ukiyo-e - Shadows, Dreams, and Substance

children flying kitesNew trade agreements beginning in the 1850s resulted in an unprecedented flow of travelers and goods between Japan and the West. Western appreciation for Japanese graphic art and objects quickly intensified and Japanese-influenced style irrevocably entered the lexicon of Western artistic expression. Around the same time, exposure to the West increasingly influenced Japanese artists and audiences. The results of these cultural exchanges are extensively chronicled in the Library's collections, which include substantial holdings of nineteenth-century Yokohama-e (primarily images of Westerners in the port city of Yokohama), and Japanese-inspired artworks by nineteenth-century European and American artists known as Japonisme, a term generally used to describe the taste for and artistic appropriation of Japanese style.

Peoples of the World

Facing pressure from various Western powers in the early 1850s to expand their contacts with foreigners beyond the limited enclaves at Nagasaki, the Japanese felt a need for more information about the other peoples of the world, including their appearance and their customs. One early work that helped provide the needed information is displayed here. In this work, men and women from twenty-one different regions of East and Southeast Asia, the Mideast, and Europe are depicted in color, together with information on location, customs, the economy, and other practical matters. The pair of individuals shown here is identified as "English (Europe)."

Tagawa Hiromichi. Appearances of Foreign Barbarians (Gaiban yôbô zue). Kurata Tôgaku, illustator. Edo: Kinkadô, 1855. Image 1. Image 2. Woodblock-printed book, 10 in. x 6 1/2 in. Vol.1. Asian Division, Library of Congress (75). (LC-USZC4-8713, LC-USZC4-8714)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj75

1860 View of the United States Capitol

The Tokugawa shogunate sent six official missions to the West during the Edo period. The first delegation was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1860 to ratify the Harris Treaty of 1858, which forced Japan to abandon its isolationist policy toward foreigners. Shown here is a hand-drawn copy of an eyewitness sketch made by a member of the Japanese delegation. The labels in the image identify the subjects as "View of Washington from the Harbor" (top center); "The Capitol" (top right); and "Alexandria" (bottom). Also shown is the unfinished Washington Monument. The facing page shows an interior view of the Willard Hotel where the Japanese delegation stayed during their visit.

View of the United States Capitol from Journal and Sketches from the Voyage to America (Meriken kôkai nikki ryakuzu), 1860. Watercolor sketchbook. Asian Division, Library of Congress (78). (LC-USZC4-8737)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj78

Western Traders at Yokohama

For Japanese artists, the port city of Yokohama became a primary incubator for a new category of images that straddled convention and novelty. Although Yokohama prints have been widely maligned for not being up to the standards of Ukiyo-e, this image by Hashimoto Sadahide (1807-ca. 1878) has both technical and artistic strength. Bustle and change are implied by every rippling wave and the repeated lines of oars, stripes, planks, rigging, and pleats--punctuated by the wave crashing at the base of the ship. Reportedly, while Sadahide was sketching the scene, he dropped his brush in the water and borrowed a pencil from a foreigner to continue drawing.

Hashimoto Sadahide. Picture of Western Traders at Yokohama Transporting Merchandise (Yokohama kôeki seiyôjin nimotsu unsô no zu), 1861. Color woodblock print, single ôban sheet from a pentaptych, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (80). (LC-USZC4-8538)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj80

Prosperous America

In addition to eyewitness accounts, Yokohama-e (Yokohama pictures) often borrowed imagery from secondary sources, such as wood engravings found in Western journals and newspapers. The source for the architecture seen in this print by Utagawa Hiroshige II (1826-1869) was traced to an illustration of Fredericksburg Castle (near Copenhagen) in the March 7, 1860, issue of the Illustrated London News.

Utagawa Hiroshige II. Picture of Prosperous America (Amerika nigiwai no zu), 1861. Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Color woodblock print, ôban triptych, 15 in. x 10 in. each. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (81). (LC-USZC4-8473, 8474, 8475)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj81

Back to Top

A Drinking Party

This triptych depicts foreigners drinking at the Gankirô Tea House, a famous pleasure-seeking place for foreign merchants in Yokohama. People from the five treaty nations--England, France, Russia, Holland, and the United States--were popular subject matter for Yokohama artists. The five countries were often expanded to six to include China (here refered to as Nanking), a longtime trade partner with Japan. The artist of this print, Ochiai Yoshiiku (1833-1904), was the son of a tea house proprietor in Asakusa.

Ochiai Yoshiiku. Picture of a Drinking Party among People of Five Countries at the Gankirô Tea House (Gokakoku Gankirô ni okeru sakamori no zu), 1860. Image 1. Image 2. Image 3. Color woodblock print, ôban triptych, 15 in. x 10 in. each. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (84). (LC-USZC4-8479, 8480, 8481)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj84


Western enthusiam for Japanese decorative and graphic art was fed by exposure through art dealers, import shops, museum exhibitions, art academies, world's fairs, published reports, and word of mouth. One of the most influential promoters was French art critic Philippe Burty, who is credited with coining the term "Japonisme" in 1872. Shown here is the title page to a set of ten etchings by French artist Félix-Hilaire Buhot (1847-1898), based on objects from Burty's personal collections.

Félix-Hilaire Buhot. Japonisme: Dix Eaux-Fortes. Paris: M. Edmond Sagot, 1885. Portfolio, 17 1/2 in. x 12 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (89). (LC-USZC4-8497)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj89

Fashionable Beauty

The woman in the foreground of this print by Isoda Koryûsai (fl. mid-1760s to 1780s) shares the name of the famous character Ukifune from the Tale of Genji. She glances over her shoulder at two young attendants behind her. Ukiyo-e prints such as this one provided aesthetic influence for Western artists, and it is known that Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was inspired by Japanese prints (see object 91).

Isoda Koryûsai. Ukifune of the Kanaya Quarter: First Designs of the Young Plants (Hinagata wakana no hatsu moyô: Kanaya uchi Ukifune), ca. 1770s. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (90). (LC-USZC4-8501)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj90

Impressionist Translation

The Fitting is from a series of ten color prints by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), which are considered among the landmarks of the aesthetic called "Japonisme." After seeing an exhibition of Japanese prints in 1890 at the École des Beaux-Arts, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) wrote to her friend and colleague Berthe Morisot (1841-1895): "Seriously, you must not miss that. You who want to make color prints you couldn't dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don't think of anything else but color on copper. . . .You must see the Japanese--come as soon as you can."

Mary Cassatt. The Fitting, ca. 1893. Color drypoint and aquatint with monotype inking, 17 in. x 12 1/4 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (91). (LC-USZC4-8499)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj91

Back to Top

Femme Fatale

Yaoya Oshichi (1666-1683) was the daughter of a greengrocer. When the family house burned down in the great fire of 1682, she and her father took refuge in a temple, where Oshichi fell in love with a young man who was studying there. Father and daughter returned home once their house was rebuilt, but, in order to return to the temple to be with her love, Oshichi set fire to the house again. Her punishment was execution by fire in 1683 when she was seventeen. Oshichi's story was recounted in kabuki drama and puppet theater, where her character is portrayed in a kimono bearing the distinctive starburst-like hemp design associated with her.

Utagawa Kuniteru (1808-1876). Famous Places in Edo: Oshichi (Edo meisho ai no uchi: Oshichi), 1867. Color woodblock print, ôban, 15 in. x 10 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (92). (LC-USZC4-8502)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj92

Portrait of an Actress

French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was a collector of Japanese prints and routinely applied the visual language of Ukiyo-e to his prints and paintings. This portrait of a nineteenth-century French actress Marcelle Lender draws on many of the conventions of Ukiyo-e actor prints--the highly stylized pose, bold colors and patterning, flattened perspective, and asymmetrical composition. The artist attended Lender's performance as the fandango-dancing Queen Galswintha at the Théâtre des Variétés nearly twenty times, making sketches for a series of paintings and prints including this one.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Mademoiselle Marcelle Lender, en buste, 1895. Crayon lithograph in eight colors, 14 in. x 10 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (93). (LC-USZC4-8503)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj93


Utagawa Hiroshige II, also known as Ichiyûsai Shigenobu, (1826-1869) was the pupil and adopted son of the great landscape master, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). This series is considered among the strongest of his works. It includes imagery that relies greatly on earlier designs by Utagawa Hiroshige, as well as original compositions and a frequent Western flavor. The artist's rendering of a Chinese lion on the large kite in the foreground creates a playful, almost tromp-l'oeil, effect.

Utagawa Hiroshige II. "View of Akiba and Fukuroi-kite" (Enshû Akiba takkei Fukuroi-dako) from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in the Provinces (Shokoku meisho hyakkei), ca. 1859-1864. Color woodblock print, aiban, 13 in. x 9 in. Japanese Prints and Drawings: 1615-1912, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (94). (LC-USZC4-8505)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj94

Early-Twentieth-Century Japonisme

Iowa-born artist Bertha Lum (1879-1954) is one of a legion of twentieth-century Western artists who have taken inspiration from Japanese precedents. Lum encountered Japanese woodblock prints while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. During trips to Japan she acquired printmaking tools and studied the woodblock technique. Kites was published in the December 1912 issue of the International Studio, the same year Bertha Lum was the only foreigner to show work in the Tenth Annual Art Exhibition in Ueno Park, Tokyo.

Bertha Lum. Kites, 1912. Color woodblock print, 8 in. x 14 1/2 in. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (95). (LC-USZC4-8504)

Bookmark this item: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/japan.html#obj95

Back to Top