Robert Frederick Blum was born and raised in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, and received his early training at the Ohio Mechanics Institute and the McMicken School of Design, which later became the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Blum first traveled abroad in 1880, when he went to Europe and worked with other American expatriate artists, primarily Frank Duveneck and James McNeill Whistler. In 1890, with his reputation secure, he was one of the first American artists to travel to Japan, where he made this painting.
The image reflects Blum’s exposure to Japanese art. Since mid-century, with the opening of Japan to the West, the availability of Japanese goods created a mania for all things Japanese. Inspired by the exoticism of Japanese prints, Blum subtly flattened the space in "The Silk Merchant, Japan" with the large mat in the foreground, and used an unusual horizontal format that owes more to Japanese handscrolls than to Western oil painting.