The artwork you will be looking at today covers the period from 1826 to 1892, and focuses geographically on Edo, or modern-day Tokyo, in Japan.
In 1868, courtesy of United States Commodore Matthew Perry, Japan opened itself to exposure from the West for the first time in 200 years. This was a dramatic development—imagine a society completely isolating itself, more or less, for two centuries, and then, within a matter of years, completely exposing itself to outside influence. As you can imagine, there would be a certain degree of culture shock on both sides, Eastern and Western.
During the late 19th century, Japanese prints flooded the European market. Their availability in abundance meant that they weren’t necessarily looked at as particularly important or special but rather viewed as more analogous to the modern-day flyer or pamphlet.
Despite this initial ignorance, Japanese artwork eventually became extremely popular in Europe, developing into a trend called japonisme.
Despite the lack of importance placed on these Japanese prints that flooded the European market, the Japanese influence spread throughout Europe, becoming a major trend in European culture. Many artists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, incorporated Japanese themes and stylistic elements into their work. Van Gogh himself actually directly copied numerous prints, including this original by the artist Hiroshige:
Now, the print below may look familiar to you. It’s by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and it’s another example of the Japanese influence on European art, specifically the flattening of forms, the use of unnaturalistic colors— such as the yellow background— and the use of a diagonal axis.
The boom in trade for Japan witnessed the rise of Japanese merchants. However, they were common and considered “non-people” by the Shogunate, the ruling militaristic clan that existed at the time in Japan. These merchants were limited to the Yoshiwara district of Edo, where they could actually spend their money.
This influx of money caused the development of certain kinds of performers, such as actors, wrestlers, courtesans, and geisha. These entertainers, along with other fleeting pleasures of life, as well as landscapes, became major subjects of the artwork of the time. These are all examples of the so-called “floating world,” depictions of the urban culture and entertainment of Edo in a genre of art that became known as Ukiyo-e.
One of the most famous examples of this genre is the artist Hokusai’s 36 views of Mount Fuji, one of which is shown below. This is the famous image called “The Great Wave.” Though sometimes mistakenly referred to as a tsunami, it’s more likely an open water wave that’s causing trouble for the boats and fishermen off the coast of the Kanagawa prefecture, or county, which is close to Edo.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia authors Ian McConnell and Aleisha Olson.