As the moon rises, a hawk moth flaps by a moonflower. In pre-dawn hours, a loggerhead lays eggs in the sand. A hydrangea bursts with blooms while a green kingfisher dives for fish nearby. Moments like these are quintessential themes of Southern art.
But what’s often called “flower and bird painting” arrived in Charleston about 150 years ago, from a country more than 7,000 miles away. Of the three scenes described, the first two were created by Charleston Renaissance artists Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Anna Heyward Taylor between 1915 and 1940. The third was created by Japanese landscape master Ichiryusai Hiroshige in 1830. All three are a style called ukiyo-e (yoo-key-oh-ey), which translates as “the floating world.”
Like Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave, ukiyo-e’s arrival smashed Western art rules in four major ways. Given their vertical written language, the Japanese were comfortable producing vertical (tate-e) art with asymmetrical compositions. People, trees, or mountains are drawn two-dimensionally and appear to one side. These works pre-date photography, but capture scenarios candidly, like a 19th century Instagram. The images tell a story, whether it’s a fleeting moment in nature, a storm drenching people crossing a historic bridge, or actors’ faces emoting in pivotal scenes. The expressive Japanese approach, with its core themes of beauty and pleasure in the moment, was a stark contrast to the stiff stances and stoic facial expressions typical of Western art.
In 1854, Japan opened itself to the West after two centuries of seclusion, and Europeans couldn’t get enough Japonisme. Silk kimonos, ornate fans, and ukiyo-e prints flooded the markets. Young artists like Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec wasted no time employing the style of ukiyo-e in their work. Across the Atlantic, Harvard Physiography professor (and Charleston native) Motte Alston Read was similarly smitten, collecting the best prints he could find and corresponding with galleries to get the inside scoop on their shows. Read’s 1919 Walpole Gallery catalog inscribed with notes and a handwritten wishlist are currently on display at the Gibbes, a vivid account of ukiyo-e’s arrival in Charleston.
Read shared his collection with his cousin Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, confident she would love them. Not only was Smith captivated, she couldn’t resist employing the style in her work. A skilled watercolorist, she found endless inspiration in the nature that surrounded her. Anna Heyward Taylor was so inspired she went to Japan to learn from the masters firsthand, and both artists became known for their flower and bird themes. Though they practiced “Lowcountry ukiyo-e” for a short time, its influence on their work would be felt for the rest of their artistic careers.
In the Gibbes’ Rotunda, the prints of Charleston Renaissance artists are paired with their Japanese predecessors: Hiroshige’s Crescent Moon (from the 28 Views of the Moon series) shows the rising crescent moon peeking between two mountains; it is accompanied by Smith’s Moonlight on the Cooper River, a scene of silhouetted figures around a campfire under a canopy of oaks and the night sky. Hokusai’s The Great Wave (from 100 Views of Mount Fuji) is paired with Taylor’s Sea Turtle; Hiroshige’s Driving Rain No. 46, (from 52 Stations of Tokaido Road) is juxtaposed with Helen Hyde’s Rainy Day South Carolina. Hyde, a Californian, studied art in Japan for 15 years and visited Charleston in 1914, where during a torrential downpour she observed a mother and daughter running for cover, an image that she immortalized in her painting.
Smith’s largest piece is Deep Water, which shows lapping harbor waves at night. It shares a gallery with Hokusai’s and Hiroshige’s nature and travel prints. Sara Arnold, the Gibbes’ curator of collections, notes that these pieces are the predecessors of modern postcards and travel books.
Woodblock prints of religious texts had been produced for public consumption since the eighth century, but Tokyo’s burgeoning merchant class and its hunger for art prompted the birth of ukiyo-e. The newly affluent collected art that reflected the trappings of prosperity: travel, theater, and live music.
To fill the demand, Japanese artists went on location, making thousands of sketches in all weather conditions and seasons. The most marketable drawings were chosen to be printed. A key block like the ones used to make those prints is on display at the Gibbes. Carved out of wood, the key block depicts a crowded street scene complete with tiny figures in domed hats, parasols, and buildings. Grooved and flat blades used to etch the wood along with a tweezer-like paintbrush are on display too. There’s also a bound book of Hokusai’s sketches.
By the 1700s, color was a selling point, so publishers had their printers hand-paint prints. By mid-century, nishiki-e, or color added by block, took off. It allowed more colors to be added more quickly and consistently. Next to the key block on display is a red color block. It depicts a geisha showing off her flower-patterned kimono, bashfully looking over her shoulder.
The color prints used organically derived inks, like indigo blues, vermilion reds, and mossy greens. Arnold notes these have held up remarkably well over time. In his portraits of actors, Sharaku used crushed mica to create a shiny silver background that hasn’t lost its sparkle either.
Capturing Lowcountry ukiyo-e on paper was a means for Charleston Renaissance artists to pay homage to a city in crisis. Smith, Taylor, and Antoinette Guerard Rhett were daughters of privilege, but they witnessed the economic bust of the Reconstruction. Making prints was an inexpensive way to create and replicate images so that they were easily shareable, and they sold well at the time. Today, that tradition of capturing local people, flora, and fauna continues with marshscapes as ubiquitous as a Charleston single house. Beauty may be fleeting, but as Keats noted, it is a joy that lasts forever.
Gibbes curator Sara Arnold will lead a tour of the exhibit Japonisme in Charleston on March 20.