Original ukiyo-e woodblocks often portrayed courtesans, geisha, and kabuki actors as their common concept. Yet, as Japan opened up to exotic western cultures, western-style prints, books,and artistic ideologies brought in by foreign merchants inspired the Japanese artists to begin integrating both cultures into their works. As a result, this influence allowed artists to produce artworks which included foreign elements such as the use of landscape/horizontal picture planes, “Prussian Blue” pigment, and one and two point perception through shading techniques. Here’s a few examples how the Europeans influenced the Japanese art industry:
1. Change in Artistic Muses
Japanese prints often modified existing compositions and themes to suit to cultures of foreign audiences. For instance, portraits of bijinga, beautiful courtesans, would be translated into a foreign theme by simply substituting foreign women into the piece. But, since a limited amount of foreign women resided in early Yokohama, artists would often use Western females from fashion plates that appeared in imported Western newspapers and magazines as muses for their traditional woodblock prints.(Yokohama: Prints from Nineteenth-Century Japan by Ann Yonemura). One great example would be Toyohara Chikanobu’s True Beauties (1838-1912), is a collection of finely printed portraits portraying contemporary Japanese women who thrive to survive in the newly westernized Japanese society. The colourful jewelry, background, and furniture contrast greatly against the monochromatic, dull kimono. This illustrates the artist’s struggles to incorporate both cultures into his work; the glasses and jewelry depicts the illustrator’s need to follow western trends, whereas dull kimono represents his refusal to give society’s expectations and risk losing his traditional background. As more foreigners came to Japan, local artists shifted away from portraying beautiful courtesans and kabuki actors to incorporating European models to please their exotic customers. This transformation of muses suggests the growing demand from western and rich, aristocratic Japanese buyers and the diminishment of local culture.
2. The use of “Prussian Blue”
Berlin blue, or officially Prussian blue, is a blue synthetic pigment which was introduced to Japanese artists by the Europeans. The vivid colours is produced contrasted greatly against the traditional natural resources used in the woodblocks, becoming popular amongst the native people. This artificial dye was also the first time the Japanese used anything other than natural minerals for their paintings (Kevin Carr). The introduction of Prussian Blue brought a fundamental change in the tradition of colour usage in Japan. Original prints based their pigments on organic, natural minerals, which produced the infamous “floating-world effect”; however, the debut of this synthetic blue pigment turned a new leaf in the history of traditional Japanese art. What led to the usage of this faint-resistant dye was the relaxation of isolationist policies which resulted in the exposure of Japanese art to European techniques. The utilization of the artificially-manufactured pigment by native artists illustrates the influence European knowledge and technique had over the Japanese artwork during Edo period. Prints including Prussian Blue, such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa, indicates how Japanese artists accepted these foreign techniques to appeal to the public’s interest to Western technology, thereby increasing their own success by promoting the popular vogue in their work. Images using Prussian Blue were interpreted as creative and exotic to the public. The transferral of tradition from Europe to Japan led to a swift change in artistic depiction across the world.
3. Landscaped Ukiyo-e
The transformation from vertically aligned portraits to horizontally oriented paintings allowed artists to expand their perspective and also include landscapes. This is illustrated through Hokusai’s pieces; early works mainly showed beautiful courtesans in a vertically positioned format, however, after the arrival of the Europeans, his works were horizontally depicted much like his notable work, “The Great Was off Kanagawa” (1829-1833)(source) The shift towards a horizontal plane by the ukiyo-e artists is a significant change that provides evidence of Western influences during the Edo period, as the change allowed artists to incorporate a wider view, creating new themes such as meisho-e (landmarks), all of which were sponsored by rich patrons fascinated by landscaped ukiyo-e. This suggests that although the public were interested in these Western ideologies, sponsors demanded for ukiyo-es to depict their everyday life, representing their undying compassion for their culture and its scenery. The shift can also be interpreted as merely a product of practicality as it widened the artist’s perception.
In conclusion, the effect of the arrival of the Europeans had on Japanese art was immense, as its influence was clearly evident by looking at the change in artistic ukiyo-e muses, the widespread use of Prussian Blue, and the transmission to horizontally oriented prints. The incorporation of foreign-styled muses show how Western appearances greatly affected Japanese ukiyo-e prints as well as the transition to foreign muses which implied the increase demand for such techniques. The usage of exotic pigments insinuates the depth of influence the Europeans had, and their presence drastically altered the Japanese’s traditional use of organic materials. The orientation of the prints not only demonstrates the Japanese’s attempt to mimic European styles, but also shows the change the styles of ukiyo-e art, which allowed artists like Hokusai to produce countless legendary works.