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Archive: Utagawa Sadahide (歌川貞秀)

Description:
Amerika Kariforuniakô shuppan no zu (Scene of a ship departing from the Port of California)
Signature:
Gountei Sadahide (五雲亭貞秀)
Seals:
No artist's seal
Publisher:
Etsuka (越嘉, Echizen-ya Kajû, 越前屋嘉十)
Date:
1862
Format:
(H x W)
Ôban nishiki-e triptych
36 (avg) x 75.4 cm
Impression:
Excellent
Condition:
Good color and condition (unbacked; album crease along left edge of left sheet, other mild vertical creases, several restored corners and small wormholes, paper stained below gentleman dressed all in black)
Price (USD/¥):
SOLD

Inquiry: SDD01 

Comments:
Background

Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide (歌川 [五雲亭] 貞秀], 1807-1873) was a pupil of Utagawa Kunisada (歌川國貞, 1786-1865). Beginning around 1826, he designed ukiyo-e prints and books on diverse subjects, including bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画), musha-e (warrior or military prints: 武者絵), fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画) and ôgi-ga (fan prints: 扇画). He is, however, perhaps best known for his more than 100 prints and books of Yokohama-e (pictures of Yokohama: 横浜絵). He was one of eleven artists chosen by the Tokugawa shogunate to represent Japan at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. The consensus opinion among scholars is that Sadahide is arguably the best of the 50 or so artists who designed more than 800 known Yokohama-e.

Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) anchored his "black ships" of the American East India Squadron off Edo Bay in 1853. Caught by surprise, after living through more than two centuries (1641-1853) of near isolation from the outside world (sakoku, "closed country": 鎖国), the Tokugawa shogunate and its people were unprepared but fascinated by the arrival of the Americans. In 1859 Yokohama harbor was opened to foreign trade, and to help satisfy the widespread curiosity about exotic Westerners, publishers began to issue what are now called "Yokohama Prints." These views of the people from the "Five Nations" (U.S., England, France, Russia, Netherlands) recorded in detail the bustling activity in the new international port and the odd customs and deportment of its strange visitors and inhabitants. Modern technology, too, was a wondrous thing, and so we find numerous prints of trans-Pacific steamships and river-going steamboats, armored warships, locomotives, and hot air balloons, along with the occasional depiction of sewing machines, pocket watches, cameras, and so on. Prints with extensive inscriptions occasionally express a near-utopian admiration for the scientific and technological progress enjoyed by Western nations.

In many instances, when depicting cities in foreign lands, Japanese artists had little to go on. Having never seen these odd-sounding places, they relied on illustrations found in newspapers and magazines, or simply their own imaginations. Unable to read the foreign texts, artists sometimes misplaced buildings from one locale to the next. Frequently the incongruities between reality and fantasy lend a certain charm to Yokohama prints that is much enjoyed today. It is interesting to note that while most Yokohama-e were published in the years 1861-1863, examples are known from 1860 through 1883.

Design

A literal translation of the title (Scene of a ship departing from the Port of California) appears to indicate that the Sadahide (or his publisher?) assumed there was a single major port in all of California. Whether the stone buildings in the distance were modeled after an illustration of actual structures in some California port city is unknown to us. Possibly Sadahide was familar with the name of the state because Japan's first embassy to the U.S. had arrived in San Francisco in March 1860. In any case, the scene is well observed. There are a variety of sea-worthy vessels — sailing ships of formidable scale, a steam-powered ship with auxiliary sails, a small boat closest to shore. American flags wave in the breeze. In the middle distance on the right sheet one can barely discern numerous tiny figures of Americans walking along a wooden pier, as well as a two-horse carriage with passengers. The citizens in the foreground offer up a nice medley of types, including young women in their fashionable full skirts (one at the farthest left is peering through a telescope). A boy next to her gestures toward the big ship on the left, while an excited dog alertly watches the departure. A pair of white goats on the far right add an earthy note to the lively scene.

Other impressions of this triptych are in the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum; the Kobe Art Museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; and the Harvard Art Museums.

References:

  1. Oka Yasumasa, et al., Japan Envisions the West: 16th-19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum, pp. 210-211, plate 170.
  2. Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, pp. 503 and 509.