East Meets West:
Exploring the Relationship Between a Western Image and a Japanese Print
B. Scott Crawford
What I find to be one of the more enjoyable parts of researching a work of art is uncovering something totally unexpected – that moment when I find a surprise that changes my view about the piece of art or supports a suspicion. Each new clue can lead to a nugget of information that gives the researcher a wondrous “aha!” moment, or it may lead the researcher on a wild goose chase! Either way, the exploration of the unknown is quite exhilarating. However, what is always a nice surprise is when I uncover something that is totally unrelated to my research but has bearing on another work of art in which I have interest.
Something of this nature happened to me just a few weeks ago. I am currently writing a new interpretation of a painting by the 19th century American Naïve painter Lynton Park titled The Burial. At this time I am not going to elaborate on my research in relation to this painting as I plan to discuss this work in a future blog. But for now, let it suffice to state that my research led me to explore every issue of Harper’s Weekly published between January 1861, and May 1865. While searching these issues I uncovered an image that was entirely unrelated to my current project but was quite relevant to me nonetheless.
When I was the education director for the Art Museum of Western Virginia and then Taubman Museum of Art, I enjoyed exploring the more than 400 19th century Japanese woodblock prints the museum has in its permanent collection. These prints are simply beautiful. What I found particularly interesting was how in some cases images from the West directly influenced some Japanese prints from the period. In the work A Much Recorded War, Anne Nishimura Morse clearly demonstrates how Western images shaped various Japanese prints related to the Russo-Japanese War. For example, here is an image from the London Illustrated Times juxtaposing an image from the West (top) and a Japanese print (bottom):
The Japanese artist clearly used the Western image as a model for his print. While the similarities are striking, do note, however, it is not an exact copy. The Japanese artist retained certain traditional Japanese cultural practices, such as the manner in which he depicts smoke and the way in which he represents figures, and he chose to omit some individuals and add others. He also added a Japanese flag.
Here is another example of a Western image that influenced a Japanese print. Again, note the similarities as well as the differences.
One 19th century Japanese print in the museum’s collection had always struck me as a clear candidate for a similar relationship with a Western image. The print, by Yoshitoshi (pictured below), depicts what appears to be two Western military forces engaged in combat. The single-point perspective is a reflection of a Western influence, and the weapons, uniforms, and block formations of troops in the middle ground reflect 19th century Western military technology and tactics. When I first began to explore this print, the military forces depicted reminded me somewhat of the Napoleonic Era. As such, I scoured numerous issues of the London Illustrated Times hoping to find an image resembling the print by Yoshitoshi. But alas, it was all to no avail.
But then it happened! While researching The Burial and perusing issues of Harper’s Weekly from 1861 through 1865 I found an image that bears a striking resemblance to the Yoshitoshi print that had haunted me the past few years. The image depicts not a battle but a grand review of the Army of the Potomac and appears in the December 7, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The perspective, the horizon line, the overall composition, the troops in the middle ground in block formations, the use of smoke, and the movement and general positioning of troops help to suggest that this image inspired Yoshitoshi when he created this print.
While the image from Harper’s Weekly depicts a “Grand Review” of an army, Yoshitoshi depicts what appears to be a battle scene. But relying on the American image alone, without reading the title of the image or the text that accompanied the image, Something Yoshitoshi may not have been capable of doing, the scene could easily be mistaken for a battle. With the image from Harper’s Weekly being black and white, Yoshitoshi could only guess at the color of the uniforms of the troops depicted, so in all likelihood he simply used the uniforms of the various European powers trading with Japan at the time, which included the United States along with England, the Netherlands, Russia, and France. A Japanese print by Yoshikazu from 1861 reflects this strong European presence in Japan and portrays various styles of uniforms Yoshitoshi would have witnessed.
However, the story takes yet another twist! Upon further research, I found another copy of the print on the fabulous website Black Ships and Samurai (http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/black_ships_and_samurai/index.html). From this site we learn several new pieces of information related to the print. First, it is obvious that the print in the museum’s collection has been cut down a bit. Notice in this comparison how part of the text has been cut off (the museum’s copy is at the top).
Second, the text accompanying the print on the website indicates that the scene Yoshitoshi depicts is not a battle but is a display of a military exercise and maneuvers involving British and French troops at Yokohama training ground which was established to help the Japanese embrace both contemporary Western military tactics and equipment (it should be noted that the gun had been banned in Japan from the 17th century up until the United States “opened” Japan in the mid 1850s). Thus the scene contains infantry carrying guns, artillery pieces, and cavalry units. The block formation suggests the French troops in the middle ground are demonstrating how to successfully withstand a cavalry charge. In this light, the Yoshitoshi print and the image from the 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly find another similarity: they both depict displays of military might as opposed to actual battles.
The Black Ships and Samurai website provides one final piece of new information. The website attributes the print to Yoshitoshi, but surprisingly it indicates the print’s date as . . . 1861! This is the same year the image I suspect as being the inspiration for the Yoshitoshi print appeared in Harper’s Weekly! With the Harper’s Weekly image appearing in December 1861, it is impossible for the image to have influenced Yoshitoshi if he did indeed create the print in 1861.
This left me scrambling – was the Yoshitoshi print truly from 1861? Well, it cannot be for three main reasons. Working with a former colleague, Tanya Gray, well versed in reading censorship seals found on Japanese prints (the circular seal found on the print and used to date Japanese prints, pictured below), we discovered that the Zodiacal image on the seal is in no way the Year of the Cock, indicating 1861, but is most likely the Year of the Hare, indicating 1867. Also, the way in which the censorship seal is designed in regard to where the month and Zodiac appear within the seal was in use in Japan only between 1864 and 1871. Here again, the print cannot be 1861 as the style of seal on the print was not in use yet.
A little historical background also helps to show that the scene could not have taken place in 1861. The troops in the print are British and French and they are conducing maneuvers in Yokohama. However, the British and French did not jointly have troops in Yokohama until at least 1862. British troops had been moved to Yokohama after Japanese Ronin, or Samurai who lost their masters, attacked them in 1861. This led to the British sending more troops to Yokohama, and by 1862 French troops had joined them. In this light, the military maneuvers Yoshitoshi depicts are as much of a show of force, warning the Japanese not to attack them again in the future, as they are a means to demonstrate European tactics. But for our purposes, with the British and French not jointly occupying Yokohama until 1862, the print could not have been completed until after 1861. With this being the case, the image from Harper’s Weekly definitely predated the Yoshitoshi print. In fact, based on the clear similarities between the two images, I would state that the Harper’s Weekly image from 1861 directly influenced Yoshitoshi as he created the 1867 print depicting British and French military maneuvers in Yokohama.
And then came yet another surprise! Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Tanya Gray sent an image of the Yoshitoshi print via email to some Japanese friends she has that live in Japan. They responded within just a few days and confirmed that the seal clearly indicates the print is dated 1867. However, they did a little more research in their part of the world and found in the National Diet Library a different version of the print (pictured below). In this version, Yoshitoshi uses different colors for some of the soldiers’ uniforms, as well as some other areas. What is most noteworthy is that in this second version he adds an explosion to the background, giving the scene a much stronger sense that it depicts a battle; yet the title remains the same, and thus the image still depicts military exercises and maneuvers involving French and British troops. We also learn from this print that the museum’s copy has been cut down even more than previously thought.
As I continued to explore the Civil War issues of Harper’s Weekly I found another image that I found interesting. The image, found below on top, shows three Union soldiers asleep in camp around a fire. In the smoke and night sky are images of home; the soldiers are dreaming about being home and reunited with their families. When I saw this image I immediately thought of a Japanese print from the Russo-Japanese War found in A Much Recorded War. The Japanese print, seen below on bottom and created by Kobayashi Kiyochika, depicts a Japanese soldier asleep in camp, specifically in a tent, with a smoky cloud revealing his dream – a dream of him at home, reunited with his family. While compositionally there is only a loose relationship, conceptually the relationship is quite strong; strong enough to suggest that here again the image from Harper’s Weekly may have influenced Kiyochika as he created this print.
With these two images from Harper’s Weekly it becomes somewhat safe to suggest that this particular weekly periodical had an impact on Japanese art during the 19th century, as was the case with the London Illustrated Times and other Western publications. Also, with these images coming out of the American Civil War we can see another legacy of that grand conflict: the imagery from the American Civil War influenced the way Japanese artists depicted some military themes as they struggled to artistically grapple with the military transformation occurring in their homeland over the course of the mid and late 19th century; a transformation involving the Japanese military culture increasingly moving away from tradition and embracing a modern, Western way of war.
It should also be remembered that as Japan moved more overtly into a global network of trade after the mid 1850s, resulting in Western artistic styles and images directly impacting Japanese art, Japanese art also impacted Western art. Specifically, Japanese prints had a direct influence on the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements of the late 19th century, as reflected below in this Japanese print by Hiroshige (left) and in this work by Van Gogh (right); in this case, the Japanese print influenced the Western artist! Such cultural and artistic exchanges between artists separated by vast oceans reminds us that the concept of Globalization is nothing new nor unique to our age. Ideas, however, moved at that time via ships as opposed to bytes!