Highlights from the collection of Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

Utagawa Hiroshige and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi were two of the last masters of the Japanese art ukiyo-e. Through woodblock printed ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” artists depicted the contemporary urban lifestyle which was centered around ephemeral experiences emphasizing wit, extravagance, and hedonism. Influenced by traditional Chinese art and professional training schools during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), early ukiyo-e artists portrayed beautiful women, kabuki actors, courtiers, and flora and fauna. Later artists, appealing to the tastes of a growing and prosperous middle class, expanded the genre to include non-traditional subjects like history, folk tales, and famous landscapes.
The prints exhibited here largely date to the end of the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) and the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Hiroshige earned the title of Master by creating intimate, often serene, landscape scenes, and elevating the genre to new heights. Although the medium’s popularity declined after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, artists like Yoshitoshi kept the craft alive through a period of industrialization and rapid social change. His work shows the desire to preserve traditions, but also the necessity of innovation in a new era.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)
Hiroshige was active during the height of the ukiyo-e movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was a prolific artist of the era, producing over 8,000 designs. Although considered by many modern collectors to be the last great master of the ukiyo-e genre, he was never wealthy because he was poorly paid per series. Despite this, he managed to transform the landscape of ukiyo-e. This series of ten prints, "Famous Places of Kyoto/Prominent Views of Kyoto" is one of his rarer works.   

Hiroshige was most famous for his landscapes, dominating the subgenre. Landscapes and travel scenes were not traditional subjects, but they became standard due to masterful designs by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

The origins of ukiyo-e lie in the depictions of the pleasure-seeking “Floating world” and the people who lived in it. Thus it is no surprise that people are important features of most of Hiroshige’s work, even the landscapes.

Famous Places of Kyoto is a celebration of the parks and scenic vistas of Kyoto. The series focuses on the intimate interaction between humans and nature in contrast to Western landscapes, which are often devoid of people.

This short series includes depictions of Kyoto at all times of the year. The famous cherry blossom season is highlighted, as well as the rainy season.

Hiroshige’s designs are known for being atmospheric. Even when depicting loud, busy, or chaotic scenes, his works often have a serene quality. This tranquility is a key aspect of his distinctive style.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
With active works spanning both the Tokugawa Period and Meiji Restoration, Yoshitoshi is considered the last great ukiyo-e master. Though photography and lithography reigned, Yoshitoshi continued to produce all his prints the customary way. He was innovative, appealing to a more Westernized audience while maintaining ties with the historical ukiyo-e tradition. The following selection of prints are from his most celebrated collection, "One Hundred Aspects of the Moon" (1885-1892).  The series depicts scenes from famous Chinese and Japanese history, poems, and folktales.

Hint: Click on the image in the lower left corner to explore the stories, myths, and characters illustrated in each image.

Yoshitoshi studied under the tutelage of Kuniyoshi, a contemporary of Hiroshige. All three were part of the Utagawa school.

Kuniyoshi encouraged his students to focus on realistic interpretations rather than capturing the general sense of the subject. This realism, combined with bright colors and unique perspectives contributed to Yoshitoshi’s iconic style.

The moon has long been a popular motif in Japanese poetry, essays, and stories. It is associated with romance, the cycle of life and Buddhist spirituality, all of which are featured in One Hundred Aspects of the Moon.

Yoshitoshi illustrated stories which were part of the cultural memory of Japan. Much like paintings depicting episodes from the Bible or Classical mythology in the West, the characters and historic episodes in Yoshitoshi's prints were instantly recognizable to his audience.

Japanese folklore is deeply steeped in Chinese mythology and history. Prior to the Tokugawa era of isolation, trade, philosophies, religion, and stories flowed freely from Mainland China to Japan. Yoshitoshi used this legacy as the basis for many of his narrative prints.

Humorous stories, such as this one about two foolish scoundrels and their ill-conceived plots, create a balance of tones within this series.

Yoshitoshi frequently derived inspiration from poetry, considered one of the highest forms of art and wit in medieval Japan. In this print and others, he included lines of relevant verse, generally taken from the classical poetry canon.

Symbolism is an integral part of Yoshitoshi's prints. In addition to poetry, he used well-known visual devices to communicate omens. For example, birds in a scene could suggest the inherent transience of life. A crescent moon meant good luck.

Some prints of this series do not depict narrative scenes. Yoshitoshi created portraits of famous historic musicians, poets, and writers, perhaps in an homage to the dying traditional arts of Japan.

Yoshitoshi included religious figures in this series. Famous historical figures of Buddhism feature more commonly in his later work, in contrast to his earlier violent Samurai and macabre portraits.

Despite achieving great acclaim during his lifetime, Yoshitoshi suffered from mental and emotional instability throughout his career. When he passed away at the age of 53 in 1892, many considered the art of ukiyo-e to have died with him.

Although Yoshitoshi may have been its last master, the influence of ukiyo-e has lasted to modern day. Contemporary artists such as Degas, Monet, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were inspired by ukiyo-e prints and today museum collections ensure the craft has a global audience.

Sho Nemoto (1850-1933)
The prints in this exhibit are just a small selection of the hundreds of prints Sho Nemoto sent to the Billings family. Sho Nemoto was a Japanese Christian who met Frederick Billings during a trip to San Francisco. Frederick sponsored Sho’s tuition at the University of Vermont, where he was roommate to Frederick’s son, Frederick Billings, Jr. Sho visited the Billings in Woodstock on several occasions. He remained close with the Billings family for the rest of his life, even naming his son Billings.             Courtesy of the Billings Family Archives, The Woodstock Foundation, Inc.

Upon his return to Japan in 1889, Sho worked as a Christian missionary then served in the Japanese Diet for 26 years. He supported increased Western presence during Meiji Era and the resulting changes. Sho’s lifestyle was antithetical to that of the floating world, yet his appreciation and collection of the art of Hiroshige and Yoshitoshi remained a lifelong endeavor.

Courtesy of the Billings Family Archives, The Woodstock Foundation, Inc.

Credits: Story

With thanks to the Billings Family Archives, The Woodstock Foundation, Inc.

Credits: All media
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