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10 / The Natural World

Suijin Shrine and Massaki on Sumida River from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Suijin Shrine and Massaki on Sumida River from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Artist / Origin Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)
Region: East Asia
Date Edo Period, 1856
Material Woodblock print
Dimensions H: 13 3/8 in. (34 cm.), W: 9 in. (22.8 cm)
Location Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Credit © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK/Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Karen SherryAssistant Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum

Suijin Shrine and Massaki on Sumida River from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

» Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)

expert perspective

Karen Sherry Karen Sherry Assistant Curator of American Art, Brooklyn Museum

The term Japonisme was coined in 1872 by the French critic, Philippe Burty, and he used it to describe this intense fascination that European and American artists had with the arts of Japan.

One of the reasons why Western artists were so fascinated with Japanese art is because it represented a completely different pictorial tradition. The types of prints that were of particular interest in the West were what’s known as ukiyo-e prints. And that term ukiyo-e in Japanese it translates to, literally, ‘pictures of the floating world.’ And it refers to a pictorial tradition in Japan by which artists were depicting modern, contemporary leisure pursuits as well as well-known landmarks. So, artists were depicting actors from the Japanese kabuki theater; they were depicting geisha and their clients; they were depicting Mount Fuji and other well-known landscapes. And the heyday of ukiyo-e in Japan was the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. And some of the most famous artists in the West—most famous Japanese artists—who were creating ukiyo-e prints were artists like Hiroshige, Utamaro, Kuniyoshi, Hokusai, those were names that became very familiar to Western fans of Japanese art. And Japanese art provided many innovative things to Western artists.

Some of the elements of Japanese art that were so intriguing to Western artists were the ways in which Japanese artists approached their compositions. And one way of thinking about how innovative the Japanese works would have seemed to Western artists—if you think about the Western pictorial tradition, dating back at least to the Renaissance, if not earlier—was the tradition that wanted to create illusionism in art and to represent the three-dimensional world illusionistically on a two-dimensional pictorial surface. Japanese artists did not have that tradition, so they weren’t interested in figuring out ways of creating atmospheric perspective and depth or creating careful modeling of figures through the shading of forms to suggest three-dimensional volume. Japanese artists came from a different pictorial tradition and adopted different pictorial techniques.

So some of these techniques and elements that were so intriguing to Western artists included an overall interest in design, compositional structures that were based on asymmetry or strong diagonal compositions, the treatment of the figure was very different in Japanese art—it was a more decorative treatment that flattened out the human figure into areas of linear design or flat planes of color. There were other elements of Japanese art as well, for example, Japanese artists’ attention to nature and the very close observation of nature, not only flora and fauna, but changes in atmosphere, shifting weather patterns and how that impacted the environment, and so forth.

Typical features of Japanese art in ukiyo-e prints that were so appealing to Western artists can be seen in Utagawa Hiroshige’s series of fifty-three landscape images he made showing different points along the Tôkaido highway which led from Tokyo to Kyoto. Hiroshige often depicted the same landscape at different times of the year to track those different atmospheric changes. That interest in close observation of nature was something that Western artists, say for example the Impressionists, picked up on from Japanese art.” 

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