Portraits of Meiji Japan features hand-painted Japanese albumen photography from the Museum’s permanent collection. Approximately ten years prior to the rule of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912), known as the Meiji restoration, Japan re-established diplomatic and trading relations with the rest of the world, marking a dramatic departure from the many years of isolation. Not only did Japan adopt a new government and foreign policies, which made them a member of the international community, but their art and cultural traditions were revolutionized.
Under Meiji, artists were encouraged to study abroad and return with new insights, skills and techniques. For the next half of the century, westernization ensued and Japanese, European, and American artists inspired each other, further developing Japanese art towards the emerging modernist styles of the time. Although hand-painted photography was introduced in Europe in the mid-19th century, by the 1880’s the process had become a common practice in Japan for tourism. European and Japanese photographers, such as Baron Raimund Von Stillfried-Ratenicz (1839-1911) and Kimbei Kusakabe (1841-1934) worked together and set up studios, similar to theater sets, to make and sell portraits. Tinting and coloring the black and white photographs made them seem more realistic and brought to life the vivid colors seen on the intricately embroidered silk kimonos, the delicate flower-adorned fans and lush gardenlike backdrops, rendering them so exotic to foreigners. Though the color may seem artificial to our eyes today, many of these images deliver a romanticized glimpse into what appeared to be the traditional Japanese life in the past.
Portraits of Meiji Japan—Photography from the 1880s include portraits of high ranking individuals as well as views of ordinary daily life, and provide some historical insight into how foreigners viewed Japan. The individual photographers are generally unknown today, but several prints are by Kimbei Kusakabe, one of Japan’s first and most well-known early studio photographers.
Image: Artist Unknown, Dancers, circa 1880, hand-colored albumen print, MMA Acquisition Fund purchase