An exhibition of rare and valuable Japanese color prints, from the collections of Mr. George C. Tuttle and Mr. Richard P. Gale of Minneapolis, is now arranged in the Print Gallery. Mr. Tuttle has added considerably to his collection since it was last exhibited at the Institute and Mr. Gale has recently acquired a fine triptych, which is one of the outstanding prints in the exhibition.It is a curious fact that Japanese color prints were first collected by foreigners who visited Japan, and that the finest examples are owned in America and Europe. Until recently the Japanese collectors were interested only in the classic painting of the aristocracy and neglected the prints, as an expression of the common people.These prints were the popular art of the Japanese people in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Yedo, then the busy and crowded northern capital of Japan, the art of the color print flourished for more than a hundred years. The patron of the artist was the common man. These broadsheets pictured the popular actors in favorite roles, fashionable courtesans, legendary heroes, dancers and wrestlers, familiar to every workman in Yedo. Or the artist drew a subtle tenuous landscape and depicted temple festivals, sunlit tea-gardens, gay boating parties on the Sumida river at midnight. He always chose the famous spots of popular recreation, and the great highroads of travel. Only rarely did he take his episodes from aristocratic life. He preferred the whimsical vulgar world, a world of the people, a world of passing gaiety.Some of these prints were fashion plates and advertisements of the time. Some were regularly published and sold in shops, while others were ordered by patrons who took the whole edition. Of the more popular prints many editions were printed and sold for a few sen.
The finer ones, however, and the great triptychs by the leading artists brought relatively high prices. But they were regarded as ephemeral things. They were mounted on the sliding screens of the Japanese houses or used to ornament the small screens which protected the kitchen fire from the wind. Many were darkened by smoke, destroyed by fire, thrown away, or allowed to fade in the sun, so that prints in a fine state are extremely rare.The wood block print served the same purpose in Japan as it did in Europe. It enabled the artist to reproduce his picture in quantity. The different stages of the art can be traced in this exhibition. At first one block was used and a black and white print produced. Then the black and white print was colored by hand, and finally several blocks were used to give a multi-colored print. The labor was usually divided. One artist designed the picture and outlined the color scheme. Another cut the blocks and a third printed the impressions. The artist usually signed his picture and often inscribed a verse on it.Japanese painting evolved from handwriting, and the lines in these color prints reveal the deft stroke of the fine brush used in calligraphy. The Japanese artist draws his figures without shadow and makes no use of chiaroscuro as developed by the western artist. He has an entirely different conception of perspective, and achieves depth by color or by directing the spectator's eye into the distance along lines of his design. His technique is extremely simple and unnecessary detail is eliminated. Looking at these prints one readily sees what Whistler and the modern artists have learned from the Japanese.The figure print developed under such masters as Harunobu, Kiyonaga, Utamaro and Yeishi. Yeishi was one of the few noblemen who stepped down from classic art to assume the art of the people. Utamaro was one of the greatest of the figure print artists, and his triptych, Awabi Shell Divers, illustrated here, is one of this finest achievements. It is also one of the rarest figure prints in the world. Single sheets are sometimes found, but the complete triptych in fine condition is exceedingly rare. It is a remarkable portrayal of the nude, which was seldom treated by the figure artists and seldom well done when they did introduce it into their compositions.Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the art of the figure print lost its vitality and subtlety and the artists were second-rate imitators of Utamaro and Toyokuni. In contrast to the general decadence of print-design came the fresh and brilliant landscape art of Hokusai and Hiroshige. One of the most beautiful compositions of this period, in the exhibition, is the triptych by Hiroshige. The three parts form one composition but they are so perfectly composed that each is a separate and complete picture, illustrating the adventures of Prince Genji, the Japanese Don Juan. Another triptych satirizes the "Treasure Ship" supposed to bring luck on New Years Day. Hiroshige depicts transitory phases of nature, cloud and mist, rain and snow, sunrise and dusk, as one sees in the Sumida River Ferry at Dusk, illustrated here.The exhibition is so arranged that those who are not familiar with Japanese color prints may readily recognize their development, and distinguish between the different impressions from the same blocks, between the early and late impression, between the fine and the average impression, and sense the variation in color scheme. Herein lies the fascination of Japanese color prints to the collector.Referenced Works of Art
- Sumida River Ferry by Hiroshige, 1796-1858. Lent by George C. Tuttle, Esq.
- Awabi Shell Divers—Triptych by Utamaro, 1790-1806. Lent by Richard P. Gale, Esq.