This view of the traditional subject of Mount Fuji is an example of so-called “mud painting” (doro-e), a Japanese medium the artist Shiba Kokan concocted in order to reproduce the effect of European oil paintings. The depiction of the blue sky with soft, white clouds, the diminution of scale of the sailboats as they recede into the distance, and the use of three-dimensional shading derive from Western painting.
In the 1630s, the Japanese government imposed strict regulations on trade with the West. Only the Dutch were allowed to trade through Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki. Although foreigners were not allowed to enter the mainland, Western goods still flowed through Dejima into Japan. Western art provided Japanese artists with fresh perspectives and challenged them to find new ways to express themselves.
Kokan was one of the most versatile and adventurous artists of his time. He learned about Western science and art from the limited number of books and other materials then available in Japan. In 1799, he published Discussion of Western Painting (Seiyo gadan), which praises Western art for its techniques of realistic representation. He admired Western naturalism attained through shading and color gradation. In this painting, Kokan signed his name in the Latin alphabet.
The inscription on the upper left states: “Ferry at Imai on the Tone River in Shimosa Province. Portrayed by Shiba Kokan, a seventy-five-year old man.” For some unknown reason, the artist began to add nine years to his actual age when he reached sixty-two. Therefore, he inscribed this painting in 1812 when he was sixty-six years old. Another odd fact is that he sent out his own death notice five years before he actually died. One theory to explain his strange behavior is that Kokan was influenced by a fable written by Zhuangzi, a Chinese Daoist philosopher from the fourth century BCE. The story suggests that if one follows an instruction given by a wise man, he can progressively improve himself every year. In the eighth year, he did not understand death and did not understand life. However, in the ninth year, he could finally penetrate “the profound mystery.” Kokan perhaps hoped to achieve enlightenment by adding nine years to his age and experiencing his virtual death by sending out the death notice.