Featured Acquisition: Ukiyo-e print by Toyohara Kunichika
Made in 1878, this color woodblock print shows a beautiful woman looking at photographic portraits, possibly of her admirers. Photography was so new in Japan in the 1870s that the artist Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900) is also representing his country’s growing contact with the western world and modern technology. The calling card-size photographs in the woman’s hands are known as cartes de visite and were first popularized in Europe in the late 1850s and the United States in the 1860s. The use of bright red and purple colors from imported German dyes also refers to modernity.
The print is part of a series titled “Thirty-six Tokyo Restaurants.” The sake and grilled fish in the rectangle above the woman’s head show one restaurant’s culinary specialties. The long, vertical cartouche on the right calls the woman Kogiku, which translates as “chrysanthemum,” and gives the address in Saruwaka-Cho (now Asakusa), an entertainment district in Japan’s capital city. The stamp on the carte de visite represents the noted Tokyo portrait photographer Uchida Kuichi (1844-1875), who had a studio in Asakusa.
Kunichika, like his teacher Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865), is well known for colorful, flamboyant images of kabuki actors and beautiful women portrayed in the Japanese art form called Ukiyo-e. These "pictures of the floating world" flourished from the 1600s to early 1900s and reflect a culture of pleasure by depicting scenes from theater and literature, daily life, landscapes, and other subjects.
This recent purchase joins a collection of more than 2,500 remarkable Japanese woodblock prints and drawings available in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. Digital versions of the prints can be seen online in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog in the category "Fine Prints, Japanese, pre-1915." [View Japanese woodblock prints]
Thousands of examples of carte de visite photographs, primarily from Europe and America, are in many different collections. To see digitized examples, search for “cartes de visite” in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog [View sample cartes de visite]